Litigation Center

Supreme Court listens to AMA regarding adolescents’ development 

The American Medical Association supports the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes an article that opposes life sentences without the possibility for being paroled for persons under 18.

So, when a Florida juvenile was facing just that, the Litigation Center of the American Medical Association and State Medical Societies joined the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in filing an amicus brief when the case, Graham v. Florida, went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010.

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Terrance Jamar Graham was 16 when he and other school-aged youths tried to rob a barbeque restaurant and were caught. After being placed on probation, he was accused of, among other things, being involved in a home invasion robbery. Some of the crimes—none of them involving homicide—occurred a few months shy of his 18th birthday.

Ultimately, a Florida court sentenced him to life imprisonment without any possibility of parole. Graham sued, arguing the punishment violated the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishments.

The AMA Litigation Center brief did not explicitly support either party, or urge the court to rule a certain way on the constitutional question. Instead, it informed the court how children’s and adolescents’ brains differ physiologically from adult brains and how those differences are likely to affect children’s personalities and abilities to make judgments.

Justices cited the AMA Litigation Center brief in their majority opinion which held that the Eighth Amendment doesn’t allow a juvenile to be sentenced to life without parole when they committed a nonhomicide crime.

Understanding adolescent brains

The majority opinion said a juvenile doesn’t need a guarantee that he or she will be released from prison, but that those under 18 must have some realistic opportunity to be released.

The court said not allowing an adolescent an opportunity to earn parole goes against the recognized goals of penal sanctions: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation.

In coming to its conclusion, the opinion from the majority cited the AMA Litigation Center brief to help explain how adolescents develop, saying as “petitioner's amici point out, developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds. For example, parts of the brain involved in behavior control continue to mature through late adolescence.” 

Developing minds and video games

The court again turned to AMA knowledge in 2011, when Justice Stephen Breyer cited research showing a correlation between violence and aggressive adolescents in a case involving a California law that prohibited selling or renting violent video games to minors.

The majority of the court in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association struck down the California law that also required that violent video games be put in packaging labeled “18,” saying it violated the First Amendment.

But Breyer disagreed with that assessment. In his dissent, he explored how children are not allowed to do a number of things on their own or need parental permission for other actions because of their age and maturity. He noted that the state may want to stop kids from buying violent video games because research showed a correlation between violence and aggressive adolescents.

The judge went on to note that AMA and several other physician groups released a joint statement in 2000 on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children that said more than “1000 studies ... point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children ... [and, though less research had been done at that time, preliminary studies indicated that] the impact of violent interactive entertainment (video games and other interactive media) on young people ... may be significantly more severe than that wrought by television, movies, or music.”