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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 29th April 2016 > 25 IS THE NEW 18

25 IS THE NEW 18

Neuroscience is changing how and when the criminal justice system punishes young adults

@timrequarth

ON A RAINY MORNING in the fall of 1993, Antonio House made a choice he would come to regret. House, who had turned 19 just two months earlier, was a member of the Unknown Vice Lords gang on the South Side of Chicago; his job was to sell drugs for the Lords. When he showed up at his corner that day, a fellow gang member relayed a message from the boss to drive down to some nearby railroad tracks instead. Once House arrived, he realized he was being asked to be a lookout. In a decision that would alter the course of his life, he stuck around. A few moments later, he heard eight gunshots. His boss had just shot two rival gang members.

House quickly drove off— later, he claimed he was unaware there were going to be murders, but it didn’t matter. He was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder. Illinois law mandated that he be sentenced to life without parole— the same sentence that applied to his boss, who orchestrated the murders and pulled the trigger.

The crime, despite its brutality, was fairly unremarkable— gang- related homicides account for 13 percent of all homicides in the U.S., despite gang members making up way less than 1 percent of the population. But what is remarkable is that this past December, over 20 years later, an appeals court made a highly unusual ruling: It vacated House’s life sentence and ordered a new hearing based, in part, on a growing body of evidence from neuroscience that brains continue to develop well into a person’s 20s. The question wasn’t whether or not House acted as a lookout. He did. But, the reasoning went, because his brain was still immature at 19, House’s age should be a factor to reduce his sentence.

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