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the big picture. This is particularly relevant for adolescents, who have been found to experience wider and more rapid mood swings than adults (Larson et al., 1980; Larson and Lampman-Petraitis, 1989; Larson and Richards, 1994).
Studies of young people's understanding of legal processing and the consequences of various legal choices, such as forfeiting the right to remain silent or to have an attorney, show differences between those younger and older than about 15 years (Grisso, 1997). Those under age 15 often misunderstand the concept of a right, in general, and of Miranda rights, in particular. They foresee fewer alternative courses of action in legal proceedings and tend to concentrate on short-term rather than long-term consequences (Grisso, 1980; 1981). For example, younger youth often misconstrue the right to remain silent, believing it means they should be quiet until they are told to talk. Nor do they completely understand the right to have an attorney present, without charge, before they talk (Abramovitch et al., 1995; Grisso, 1981). These misunderstandings raise concerns about children's and young adolescents' competence to stand trial in adult court. Children and adolescents from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds and those with low IQs fare worse in understanding the legal process and their rights than do other children and adolescents of comparable ages (Grisso, 1997). Furthermore, experience with the justice system does not ensure that young people fully understand the process, their rights, or the implications of the decisions they make. Both Grisso (1981) and Lawrence (1983) have found that adolescent delinquents had much poorer understanding of their rights than did adult defendants.
Emerging research using magnetic resonance imaging of the brain demonstrates the cognitive and emotional differences between adolescents and adults. Children and adolescents process emotionally charged information in the part of the brain responsible for instinct and gut reactions. Adults process such information in the “rational” frontal section of the brain (Baird et al., 1999). Children and adolescents may be physiologically less capable than adults of reasoning logically in the face of particularly strong emotions. In a recent study, Thompson et al. (2000) found that the brain continues to develop and change through at least midadolescence, with the most active parts of the brain changing during development. These new insights on brain development may have implications for holding children and adolescents criminally responsible in the same way as adults and raise concerns about initiatives to transfer younger and younger defendants to adult courts.