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Developmental Factors Regarding Legal Consideration of Minors

Written by David Steltz

Posted on October 12th, 2012

Last Edited on June 27th, 2017

Children under the age of seven are not held responsible for crimes in America because they are said to be unable to form criminal intent. As evident in the story of a six year old from Michigan, the legal view of children and criminality can have a significant impact on people’s lives and the outcome of major criminal court cases. The scientific support for such must therefore be observable and convincing enough to uphold this legal stance. Moral development, emotional development, social learning and brain development are all relevant factors in situations leading to crime. To understand the legality of child crimes one must thereby consider the prevailing psychological concepts relating to such developmental components.

Many crimes are defined as such on a moral basis, so it is reasonable and arguably necessary to examine moral development. Empathy leading to prosocial behavior and antipathy leading to antisocial behavior, the level of a child’s empathy or antipathy can be said to relate directly to the likelihood and capacity of that child to commit a crime. Both empathy and antipathy can be observed in children under the age of four, and by age 4 or 5, as a result of brain maturation, theory of mind, emotional regulation, and interactions with caregivers-most children can be deliberately prosocial or antisocial. Where, then, is the distinction between these children’s deliberate antisocial behavior and those of corresponding adults? One possible contribution to the answer is the role of nurture in a child’s development. A child’s morality and capacity for empathy is largely influenced by nurture. For example, children learn from their parents what it means to “be bad” and what the consequences are for it. If a child was never taught that breaking the law is “bad” and had no concept of the potential consequences, he would have no resulting motivation to keep the law. Though such a scenario is unlikely, it demonstrates the impact of nurture on morality.

Emotional development also plays a significant role in this context. Emotions often dictate or influence behaviors, so emotional regulation must be considered necessary to rational decisions. In The Developing Person Through The Lifespan Berger describes this as an “accomplishment between ages 2 and 6” in which children “learn how to be angry but not explosive…” A child’s inability to control the outcome of his anger is undoubtedly a major force of reasoning against holding them accountable to violence. Guilt, motivation, and self-esteem are all emotionally related and, undeveloped, can not be held to the same expectations as they would be in an adult.

Social learning and brain development are impossible to ignore and fuel much of the previously mentioned development. Crimes are inherently social in nature, thus making children’s grasp of social concepts pivotal in determining their responsibility in criminal situations. Learning processes such as scaffolding are seen to be completed in the years leading to age six, reinforcing that cut-off for criminal intent. Likewise, brain development is the process from which most others stem, being the core element of the developmental process. When the brain itself has limited capacity for the discussed elements of development, abstract qualities such as morality empathy are not only environmentally, but physically inhibited by age.

Evidently, there is in fact strong scientific support for the decriminalization of children under the age of seven. Given their moral, emotional, social and physical limitations, children are not held to the same standards or expectations as fully developed individuals. This does not change the argument that children have the capacity for evil intent and do possess a conscience, but provides protection from the shortcomings of being underdeveloped in those areas.

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Developmental Factors Regarding Legal Consideration of Minors