The connection between brain science and sentencing reform

Friday, January 5, 2024
A young hand using an orange watering can to water a row of seeds getting progressively taller against a blue backgdrop

Your brain changes a lot between birth, adolescence, and adulthood. Some of the changes are physical – your brain grows in overall size. Many of the changes relate to how you respond to peer pressure, your impulse control, and your ability to think and plan long term.  

One of the most important parts of your brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex, which handles many complex cognitive tasks like planning and problem solving. It is also important in cognitive control, which enables you to suppress impulses and make more intentional, deliberate decisions while under emotional stress. Science shows that this part of your brain is not fully developed until age 25.  

There is a growing national understanding that young adults need to be treated differently in the criminal legal system because their brains are still developing, especially in regard to long sentences. This legislative session, the ACLU-WA, in collaboration with partner organizations and currently and formerly incarcerated allies, is back in Olympia advocating for the passage of the Emerging Adults Bill, HB 1325/SB 5451, to address this issue.  

In Washington, we offer opportunities for sentencing review before the Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board (ISRB) for juveniles given long sentences. This review mechanism was established in 2014 and has had astounding results. People who have been released are now in their communities and are giving back — running nonprofits, attending law school, and working in anti-violence initiatives. In recognition of this success and modern brain science, the Emerging Adults bill, HB 1325/SB 5451, would increase the age for sentence review consideration from 18 to 25.  

There is also a growing body of court rulings that supports the idea that young people should be uniquely considered in the criminal legal system. Questions of fairness and constitutionality regarding sentencing laws that do not consider developments in brain science have been raised by both the United States Supreme Court and repeatedly by the Washington Supreme Court.  

In Miller v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court held that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juveniles. A recent Washington Supreme Court decision (State v. Monschke) ruled that it is cruel and unusual punishment to give a person under the age of 20 an automatic life sentence without the opportunity for parole. The court ruled on the age of 20 because the petitioner in the case was that age.  

Allowing more opportunities for sentencing review also helps to advance racial justice. Massive disparities in sentencing for young adults contribute to the disproportionate and harmful impacts of the criminal legal system and mass incarceration on communities of color. Racially disproportionate sentences are especially high among those who are given long determinate sentences as young adults.  


A critical component of the proposed legislation is that the bill is a second look, not a guarantee of release. The ISRB still has the discretion to review sentences, but this allows more young people to have the opportunity.  

This change would bring Washington state in line with the best evidence regarding brain development and offer hope to a large population of incarcerated individuals, many of whom are people of color, who have been harmed by a determinate sentencing system that did not consider their young age or capacity for growth.