South Carolina native Sean Shevlino was 16 years old when he robbed his local Food Lion with the aid of a toy pellet gun. He is five years into a 10-year sentence at the MacDougal Correctional Institute — a sentence meant for adults but which, under South Carolina law, can also be applied to juvenile delinquents, according to an article in The Daily Beast Wednesday.
It seems to be a harsh ruling, given the convict’s age. Increasingly, law enforcement specialists and authorities are beginning to question the wisdom of sentencing juveniles as adults. It was not until 2005 that the death penalty was abolished for criminals under the age of 18. Recent research by the U.S. Department of Justice shows that prosecuting young criminals as adults does not necessarily rehabilitate them or deter future criminal behavior. When young people are tried as adults, they generally have greater rates of recidivism than those tried in juvenile court, according to The Daily Beast. This could be due in part to adult correctional facilities being often too harsh for the under-aged adolescent.
Laurence Steinberg, a researcher at Temple University, discovered that 75 percent of adolescent males violate the law at some point, even for minor crimes such as possession of marijuana. The fact of the matter, he said in his most recent study, is that teenagers of mid-adolescent age (14 to 16) are less adequate at rational decision-making than their adult superiors, according to The Daily Beast.
But even if law-breaking is prevalent, an armed robbery — even if the gun is fake — is different from stealing a pack of gum or engaging in the more perpetuated offense of marijuana possession. Threatening to use weapons for cash could unfold into habits of more harmful and violent crime. Perhaps the South Carolina verdict was merely a preventative one. Would that justify Shevlino’s sentence? Does his punishment fit his crime?
Should the science of adolescent brain development influence public policy? It is important that we consider the effects of correctional facilities on the undeveloped adolescent mind — it is possible they could do more damage than good, especially if the convict at hand already suffers from mental instability. Shevlino was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder, according to The Daily Beast. True, he cannot claim undeveloped oblivion — Shevlino knew very well that his actions were wrong and did them anyway. But long sentences such as Shevlino’s will work only if implemented correctly, and it seems as if he was given more punishment than he was due.