The blameworthiness of juvenile offenders, relative to their adult counterparts, received little attention from courts or legal commentators for much of the 20th century because a foundational premise of the juvenile court has been that juveniles lack criminal responsibility. Only in recent years, as young offenders are increasingly tried and punished as adults, has the importance of this issue become clear. Indeed, as this report is being prepared, debates over the relative blameworthiness of the adolescent and adult suspects in the Washington-area sniper shootings, and the implications of this for the use of capital punishment, were being played out in the popular media.
The Network's research on adults' perceptions of culpability does not address fundamental questions about whether juveniles, by virtue of developmental immaturity, should be held less blameworthy, and therefore less punishable, than adults who have committed similar offenses. That is, although our studies of perceived culpability may tell us whether adults view juveniles as less blameworthy than adults, and whether these views are influenced by factors like the offender's race and physical appearance, they can not tell us whether juveniles actually are less blameworthy than their elders. We believe that this question is central to the Network's overarching agenda.
Our plan is to study whether the fundamental psychological and intellectual requirements for criminal culpability emerge along a predictable developmental timetable that should be taken into account in discussions of how the justice system should respond to juvenile crime. Although courts have not delineated clearly the psychological characteristics that are relevant to the assessment of culpability, the importance of developmental immaturity in mitigating criminal responsibility has long been recognized -- indeed, it is a core rationale for having a separate juvenile court.
Findings from the Network's competence study, which included measures of future orientation, susceptibility to peer pressure, and risk perception, provide additional impetus for a new initiative on culpability. Analyses of data from these measures indicate that there are significant, age-related changes in individuals' likelihood of considering the future consequences of their actions and in their susceptibility to peer influence, but not in their risk perception, over the course of adolescence. Even these preliminary findings illustrate just how complicated the assessment of blameworthiness is likely to be. For example, the findings suggest that adolescents and adults may perceive situations in similar ways (i.e., their assessments of risk may be comparable) but that adolescents may lack the ability to act on these perceptions in ways that align their behavior with their perceptions of risk. If this is the case, asking whether a juvenile recognized if a behavior was dangerous or morally wrong--asking whether he "knew what he was doing"--may not be the correct best way to frame the discussion, since it is possible that an immature person may perceive a behavior as risky or wrong but be influenced to engage in it regardless of that perception for other reasons (e.g., pressure from his friends, immaturity in the ability to regulate his behavior).