The legal landscape in Juvenile Justice has been going through some profound changes in recent years, based on what the neuroscience reveals about the development of the adolescent brain. Neuroscience research reveals 1) that the parts of the brain responsible for self-control and rational decision-making aren’t fully developed until the mid-20s or even 30, and 2) that the brain’s reward system is primed for riskier behavior in adolescence.
The research is also helping clarify that “typical” rates of development don’t account for the large variability in development among teenagers. Studies have found that juveniles in the Justice System have less well developed cognitive skills, in general, which contribute to academic and behavioral issues that feed off of each other. The Northwestern Juvenile Project found that 90% of the newly detained juveniles in their custody had below average receptive vocabulary skills (the ability to understand/comprehend language heard or read) as well as impaired overall intellectual functioning. Issues of cognitive development are not generally addressed in the Juvenile Justice System and the CSG Juvenile Justice Center reports that in some states, the recidivism rate is as high as 75% after 3 years.
According to the CSG Juvenile Justice Center, traditional punishment-oriented treatment increases recidivism by 8%. One alternative approach that has been studied is cognitive behavioral therapy, a kind of talk therapy that seeks to change the cognitive distortions (poor reasoning) that lead to illegal and antisocial behaviors. CBT also focuses on emotional regulation and the development of more effective coping strategies. The CSG study found that CBT practices reduce recidivism by 26%.
While CBT has been shown to be helpful, another promising approach is the remediation of cognitive deficits through cognitive training. Cognitive training has been shown to be able to improve cognitive skills nearly to the level of normally developing students in research with students with specific learning disabilities.
In a small study at Pierceton Woods Academy in Pierceton, IN, 5 of 6 students had significant deficits in attention skills on a scientifically valid, nationally normed cognitive assessment (Mindprint). Following 5 cognitive training sessions per week for 8 weeks with BrainWare SAFARI, 3 of the 5 students with attention issues raised their scores to within the expected range on the Attention test. Most students also improved significantly in other relevant areas of cognitive functioning, including working memory, processing speed and various reasoning skills.
Improvement in cognitive skills also yields gains in academic performance and accelerates learning across the curriculum. And the evidence of the impact of educational and vocational training on reducing recidivism is strong.
While additional research is needed, the potential to raise cognitive capacity and academic performance for youth in the juvenile justice system, to improve decision-making directly and to provide an opportunity for future employment, seems likely to have benefits for this population.
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