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Brain Science & Youth Offenses

At the time of their convictions, Don and Shawnda were just 16 and 14 years old, respectively. They both experienced turbulent childhoods, as referenced by Governor Bredesen in his grant of clemency. Don and Shawnda both lacked stable and nurturing parental figures and were exposed to drugs and alcohol at a young age. Although these facts do not excuse their actions, they provide necessary context to understanding Don’s and Shawnda’s childhoods. Accordingly, research suggests that maltreatment during childhood increases the chances of committing a criminal offense later in life. 


In addition to understanding Don’s and Shawnda’s childhoods, it is imperative to acknowledge their status as juvenile offenders. The most recent research on cognitive development reveals that adolescents do not achieve full psychological or neurological maturation. The frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for decision-making, is one of the last areas in the brain to reach maturation. Adolescents are therefore less likely to consider alternative courses of action or the potential consequences of their choices. Incomplete brain development leads adolescents to make more impulsive and risky decisions, often resulting in criminal behavior. 


The implications of scientific brain research are vital to understanding Don’s and Shawnda’s cases. Both were adolescents at the time of their crimes, whose incomplete cognitive development undoubtedly affected their decision-making. It also must be considered that as the brain continues to mature throughout adulthood, most individuals acquire the necessary decision-making processes to choose to refrain from criminal behavior. Don and Shawnda’s stories make it evident that this holds true. Through an abundance of rehabilitation efforts, Don and Shawnda have clearly demonstrated their immense maturation since their adolescence. Don and Shawnda should no longer be defined by the crimes they committed about 25 years ago, as they have clearly undergone extensive personal growth and progression.

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