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Legal models of adolescent autonomy and responsibility in various domains of law span a spectrum from categorical prohibitions of certain behaviors to recognitions of total adolescent autonomy. The piecemeal approach to the limited decision-making capacity of adolescents lacks an empirical foundation in the differences between adolescent and adult decision-making, leading to counterintuitive and inconsistent legal outcomes. The law limits adolescent autonomy with respect to some decisions that adolescents are perfectly competent to make, and in other areas, the law attributes adult responsibility and imposes adult punishments on adolescents for making decisions that implicate their unique volitional vulnerabilities. As developmental neuroscientists discover more about the biological underpinnings of juvenile decision-making, policymakers now have the opportunity to enhance consistency within and across the legal domains that regulate adolescent behavior. To serve this goal, our paper typologizes extant legal regimes that account for the limitations of adolescent decision making, reviews the neuroscientific evidence about how the brain’s developing structures and functions affect decision making, explores case studies of how certain youth behaviors that implicate the adolescent brain’s unique vulnerabilities intersect with the legal system, and proposes a matrix-based approach for the consistent legal evaluation of adolescent behavior.

Publication Citation

12 Indiana Health Law Review 533 (2015).


Criminal Law | Developmental Neuroscience | Juvenile Law | Law and Psychology