Psychological and Legal Evaluation of a “Totality” Versus “Per Se” Approach to Juvenile Offenders

Kelsey Ball, University of Virginia

Full paper:

Introduction As a culturally accepted rule, juveniles are treated differently from adults and are often denied the executive right to make important, life-changing decisions. Due to a presumed lack of experience, maturity, and intellectual capacity, parents and other officials often limit juveniles’ rights to make decisions in an effort to avoid potential social consequences and/or negative repercussions to the adolescent. The presumption that adolescents cannot make sound decisions on their own is supported by various neuro-psychological studies illustrating developmental differences between adolescent and adult brains. These differences are particularly salient in the frontal cortex that is shown to moderate executive functions, such as inhibiting inappropriate behaviors (Begley, 2000). Because of the differences in brain development and cognitive maturity, adolescent decision-making on important issues such as health care, education, and custody is often facilitated by a parent or guardian. All the more, with life-changing decisions relating to criminal offenses, one would expect the implementation of similar precautionary measures with regard to adolescent decision-making; however, this is not the case. Numerous legal cases in the past show the unfortunate outcomes of unassisted juvenile decision-making in police interrogations, highlighting the prevalence of a “totality of circumstances” approach which gives courts complete discretion in determining whether or not a juvenile voluntarily waived their Miranda rights.

In this paper, the underlying issues of the “totality” approach will be addressed from both a psychological and legal perspective. In addition, the application of a “per se” approach, based on the adolescent’s fundamental right to counsel with an interested adult before participating in legal investigations, will be explored and evaluated based on psychological research and legal precedence. Finally, the potential importance of individualized justice will be discussed as a practical alternative for cases involving juvenile offenders. 

Read the full paper: