Healthy brain development is a human right

Summary: Researchers state healthy brain development should be considered a human right, not a privilege for the elite. Youths incarcerated in the U.S jail system are not having their cognitive and emotional development needs met, the study reports.

Source: Cell Press

We know that the environment in which children and young adults are raised influences healthy brain development. Now, a psychologist at Yale is taking a stance against the negative effects of a particularly harrowing environment in her own backyard: the U.S. prison system. In a paper published May 22 in the journal Neuron, the author declares that everybody, including young offenders, deserves healthy brain development–a right she says U.S. jails often infringe upon.

“Healthy psychological brain development is not a privilege for the elite, but is a right for all,” says B.J. Casey, a Professor of Psychology and member of the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program and Justice Collaboratory at Yale University. She believes that this right is often infringed upon by the U.S. legal system because the U.S. jails more adolescents than any other country, yet doesn’t provide opportunities for them to build the skills necessary to become a person who functions well in society.

To that end, more protections are needed for young people who ultimately wind up in the legal system to ensure they can have healthy psychological development. Specifically, Casey believes bail reform is essential. In fact, 80% of detainees at Rikers, a notoriously harsh correctional facility in New York, have not been convicted of a crime, and many of them remain in custody simply because they cannot afford bail. Of those detainees, nearly 15% are teens. Casey argues that “reforms need to be implemented to prevent as many of these kids from landing in jail in the first place.”

Additionally, she recommends reforming the transfer system. She points out that many U.S. states have no minimum age for transfer to adult courts.

Lastly, closing facilities that are strictly disciplinary and lack rehabilitation components is critical as well. Casey says these monumental failings of the justice system are exemplified in the case of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old who was never convicted of a crime but was detained at Rikers for three years because his family could not post bail, with two of those years spent in solitary confinement. Two years later, Browder would take his own life.

“Typically, when we think of young offenders, we think of teenagers,” Casey says, “but research is emerging that suggests significant changes in brain function extends into the early 20s that are relevant to justice policy.” She reports that policy-makers are beginning to recognize the life stage of young adulthood as markedly different from other life stages. The creation of young adult courts popping up throughout the country, as well as pilot programs that require more rehabilitation rather than strictly punitive measures for individuals up to the age of 25, demonstrate this slow shift. But more work is needed, she says.

This shows brains made out of sand
Additionally, she recommends reforming the transfer system. She points out that many U.S. states have no minimum age for transfer to adult courts. The image is in the public domain.

“None of this addresses the white elephant in the room. When we talk about young people who come into contact with the law or who are transferred to adult courts, a disproportionate number of them are youths of color,” she says. Casey notes that her future research involves looking at how encounters with individuals of color can impact actions and perceptions.

“As developmental scientists, we need to continue to do objective, empirical research that responsibly informs policy,” she says. “I feel very compelled to try to answer these difficult questions.”

About this neuroscience research article

Cell Press
Media Contacts:
Brianne Fagan – Cell Press
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“Healthy Development as a Human Right: Lessons from Developmental Science”. B.J. Casey.
Neuron. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2019.03.035


Healthy Development as a Human Right: Lessons from Developmental Science

Healthy psychological and brain development is not a privilege, but a fundamental right that requires special protections and opportunities for building cognitive, emotional, and social skills necessary for becoming a contributing member of our society.

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  1. While this opinion may not be everyone’s, I agree because it is fundementally true that we all deserve equal treatment at birth, so it should be equal until we come to an age we consider adulthood. That age is what’s currently in our society in the US at least, questionable. From that age forward, we must be accountable, of course, but before then, there are many who simply have not yet matured enough. Their brains are still not finished with successful completion.
    If here, in the US again, an adult at age 18 can enlist in the service and also not require a parent or legal guardian be present during “routine” questioning by police, why then can they not yet be considered an adult old enough to be considered mature enough to buy alcohol in most states? I am not advocating that they should be, but pointing out the varying degrees we consider adulthood.

    There are others, but I consider the age to be not set for many who at a much earlier stage in life may have been diagnosed with developemental delays and yet that isn’t considered, nor are many other factors like neurological backgrounds. All of which need better screening before they enter the court systems. Pediatricians must be better able to identify early signs which is slowly happening, but in disadvantaged and higher diagnosed proportion areas, the rates of incarceration rates match which is a civil violation waiting to happen leading these youth to a court system which takes them into a state run youth juvenile detention center or profit run (per person) prison system. This is unacceptable in a society like ours.

    These are people (many who are still just past the cusp of childhood) who already have social, language, sensory, diet, emotional and special needs to begin with that may or may not have been addressed to start with. Then we throw them in a locked environment, with actual criminals mind you, deprive them of the needs they have in order for them to live normally yet alone rehabilitate and expect no violence, expect them to become better citizens to come out with a record not enabling them to get basic work let alone the needs of a job with any accomodations that may sustain them to stay employed?! And we expect while they are there, that they are to grow up? Mature, having no idea what’s going on outside in the real world, until they get out there, only to struggle even worse?!

    We are smarter than this. We must be because soon the epidemic of young people who have been diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum as well as those with Tourette’s which is being diagnosed almost to the same percentages per 100 will soon find themselves in adulthood at 18 to 22, fresh out of school with no supports or options to assist. And what happens when many with Baby Boomer parents no longer have those parents to look after them? Will society be ready to handle their needs? Will the courts?! Will the prison systems and youth facilities?!

    I sincerely hope we as a society decide that division is wasteful and humanity has no sides. We all desire the same basic rights and have the same needs. It’s time we find ways to make things work better, or this next generation will be one very angry one.

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