Crime is for young people. Homicide and drug arrests peak at 19, arrests for forcible rape peak at 18, vandalism at 16, and forgery, fraud and embezzlement in the early 20s.
This may be because young people are typically more poor than older people (inspiring property crimes), or because they have fewer responsibilities and can therefore take more risks. It’s probably true that physical abilities play a role – if you’re pretty sure you can’t outrun a police officer, you might keep the lid on that spray paint. But dollars to donuts that one major factor is frontal lobe development.
Neuroscientists have conclusively shown that connections to the frontal lobe continue developing through our 20s, and goes a little slower in men than women. So until women are about 23 and men are about 25, access to the part of the brain that influences judgement and insight is slow relative to older people.
Despite ample scientific evidence demonstrating that young people who make poor choices are very likely to grow up to be adults who are perfectly capable of making better ones, sentences in the U.S. are out of step with this reality in three ways: we frequently sentence minors (sometimes as young as 13 or 14) as though they have the culpability of an adult, we sentence people to stints far longer than what is likely necessary from a public safety standpoint (given that for most crimes the average “career length” is 5 – 10 years), and our increasingly use of life without parole sentences means a growing elderly population in prison, often with substantial healthcare needs that the prison system is ill-equipped to meet.
It’s crazy that America’s massive criminal justice system, which affects so many lives so deeply and costs such a huge amount of money, is allowed to carry on in ways that are divorced from what we know about how people – and crime – operate.