“I am among [Michigan’s] 300 plus ‘Juvenile Lifers,’” a prisoner known to his friends as Chan wrote me in 1994, kindly passing along a math error he had caught in one of my textbooks. More than half a lifetime ago, Chan, as a 17-year-old, had joined a friend in committing an armed robbery and murder. He expressed “great remorse and regret” for his crime, as well as his hope to learn and grow with the goal of contributing “something of substance and worth.” In the ensuing six years of our occasional correspondence, Chan—an intelligent and now deeply religious man—has been described to me by others, including the retired superintendent of his former prison, as a model prisoner. He is excelling in prison-taught college courses. After taking introductory psychology with my text, he alerted me that Aristotle’s Apothegems is actually spelled Apothegms. Chan, now in his mid-40s, would much rather be contributing to society and paying taxes than having his room and board funded by Michigan taxpayers, whose $2.06 billion prison budget impedes our governor’s fulfilling her campaign pledge to “fix the damn roads.” But does society somehow benefit from keeping those who have committed an impulsive juvenile crime endlessly locked up? Might Chan, if released, still be a risk? Hardly. Teens’ inhibitory frontal lobes lag the development of their emotional limbic system. With brains not yet fully prepared to calculate long-term consequences, the result is teen impulsiveness and emotionality. No wonder arrest rates for rape, assault, and murder soar during the teen years and decline after age 20—to a much lower level by the mid-40s. As psychologist David Lykken noted , “We could avoid two-thirds of all crime simply by putting all able-bodied young men in cryogenic sleep from the age of 12 through 28.” By that time, the frontal lobes have matured, testosterone is subsiding, and men are mellowing. Middle-aged men are not just adolescents with inflated waistlines. But if the incarceration of juvenile lifers like Chan is costly to society, might it nevertheless deter future Chans from violent acts? Alas, when committing an impulsive act or a crime of passion, people seldom pause to calmly calculate the long-term consequences. (Even the threat of capital punishment does not predict lower state homicide rates.) Any deterrence effect lies less with the length of a punishment than with its probability—its swiftness and sureness. The immaturity of the teen brain and the diminishing risk of violence with age, as explained in Supreme Court briefs by the American Psychological Association and other health associations, contributed to the Court’s 2012 ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violated the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Even discretionary life-without-parole sentences were unconstitutional, it ruled, except for “the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” Then, last week, the Court qualified that judgment by affirming the life sentence of Mississippian Brett Jones, who—when barely age 15, and after a lifetime of abuse—responded to his grandfather’s reportedly hitting him by impulsively stabbing his grandfather to death. Like Chan, Jones, now 31, is said to be “remorseful for his crime, hardworking and a ‘good kid’” who gets along with everybody. How ironic, commentators noted, that the majority opinion—that teens can forever be held responsible for their juvenile misdeeds—was written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who had argued during his confirmation hearings that holding him responsible for his high school yearbook page was “a new level of absurdity.” Moreover, responded Justice Sonia Sotomayor, this decision will prevent hundreds of other juvenile defendants, 70 percent of whom are people of color, from securing early release. zodebala/E+/Getty Images Nevertheless, there has been increasing bipartisan concern about the human and financial costs of lengthy mass incarceration for long-ago transgressions. The Smarter Sentencing Act , co-sponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), responds to the reality that the seven-fold increased federal prison population since 1980 makes such incarceration “one of our nation’s biggest expenditures, dwarfing the amount spent on law enforcement.” Surely, we can say yes to public protection, but also yes to smarter sentencing—sentencing that holds the Chans and Brett Joneses accountable for their acts, while also recognizing that the impulsive, momentary act of an immature teen needn’t predict one’s distant future. Indeed, how many of us would like to be judged today by the worst moments of our immature adolescence? (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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Today, even while wishing President-elect Biden a happy birthday, some wonder: At age 78, does he have—and will he sustain for four years—the energy, mental acuity, and drive to excel in his new role? Or, as he approaches 80, will he embody his opponent’s caricature of “Sleepy Joe”—as someone not to be trusted with the cognitive demands of national and world leadership? Mr. President-elect, I empathize. I, too, turned 78 this fall. So on behalf of you and all of us late-70s folks, let me shine the light of psychological science on our capacities. First, people should understand that the more we age, the less age predicts our abilities. Knowing that James is 8 and Jamal is 18 tells us much about their differences. Not so with two adults who similarly differ by a decade. Many a 78-year-old can outrun and outthink a 68-year-old neighbor. It’s true that we late-70s folks have some diminishing abilities. Like you, Mr. President-elect, I can still jog—but not as fast or far. The stairs we once bounded up have gotten steeper, the newsprint smaller, others’ voices fainter. And in the molasses of our brain, memories bubble more slowly to the surface: We more often experience brain freezes as we try to retrieve someone’s name or the next point we were about to make. Yet with a lifetime’s accumulation of antibodies, we also suffer fewer common colds and flus than do our grandchildren. Physical exercise, which you and I regularly do, not only sustains our muscles, bones, and hearts; it also stimulates neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells and neural connections. The result, when compared with sedentary folks like your predecessor, is better memory, sharper judgment, and minimized cognitive decline. Moreover, we either retain or grow three important strengths: Crystallized intelligence. We can admit to experiencing what researchers document: Our fluid intelligence—our ability to reason and react speedily—isn’t what it used to be. We don’t solve math problems as quickly or learn new technologies as readily, and we’re no match for our grandkids at video games. But the better news is that our crystallized intelligence—our accumulated knowledge and the ability to apply it—crests later in life. No wonder many historians, philosophers, and artists have produced their most noteworthy work later in life than have mathematicians and scientists. Anna Mary Robertson Moses (“Grandma Moses”) took up painting in her 70s. At age 89, Frank Lloyd Wright designed New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. At age 94, my psychologist colleague Albert Bandura has just co-authored yet another article. Perhaps our most important work is also yet ahead? Wisdom. With maturity, people’s social skills often increase. They become better able to take multiple perspectives, to offer helpful sagacity amid conflicts, and to appreciate the limits of their knowledge. The wisdom to know when we know a thing and when we do not is born of experience. Working at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute, psychologist Paul Baltes and his colleagues developed wisdom tests that assess people’s life knowledge and judgments about how to conduct themselves in complex circumstances. Wisdom “is one domain in which some older individuals excel,” they report . “In youth we learn, in age we understand,” observed the 19th-century novelist Marie Von Ebner-Eschenbach. Stable emotionality. As the years go by, our feelings mellow. Unlike teens, who tend to rebound up from gloom or down from elation within an hour, our highs are less high and our lows less low. As we age, we find ourselves less often feeling excited or elated. But our lives are also less often disrupted by depression. We late-70s people are better able to look beyond the moment. Compliments produce less elation; criticisms, less despair. At the outset of my career, praise and criticism would inflate and deflate my head. A publication might have me thinking I was God’s new gift to my profession, while a rejection led me to ponder moving home to join the family business. With experience, both acclaim and reproach become mere iotas of additional feedback atop a mountain of commentary. Thus, when responding to the day’s slings and arrows, we can better take a big-picture, long-term perspective. Mr. President-elect, I understand these things, as I suspect you do, too. When in my 60s, I assumed—wrongly—that by age 78, I would no longer have the energy to read, to think, to write. Instead, I take joy in daily entering my office at a place called Hope. I relish each day learning something new. I find delight in making words march up a screen. And I’m mellower, as it takes more to make me feel either ecstatic or despondent. And you? Will you, as a newly minted 78-year-old, show your age? Yes, that jog up to the podium will surely slow. You will likely more often misspeak or forget a point. Your sleep will be more interrupted. But you will also benefit from the crystallized intelligence that comes with your lifetime’s experience. You can harness the wisdom that comes with age. And you can give us the gift of emotional maturity that will enable you, better than most, to navigate, as you have said, the “battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses.” (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com or follow him on Twitter @DavidGMyers).
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