The Juvenile Judas—They Know Not What They Do: Neuroscience and the Juvenile Informant

American criminal jurisprudence relies on confidential informants: those individuals who agree to assist police in exchange for leniency. Facing little regulation by legislatures, law enforcement has raised an informant system premised on the exploitation of vulnerabilities and free from basic safeguards that would help to mitigate the moral, mental, and physical harm informants face in the field. While this is generally problematic, the issue becomes more pronounced when considering law enforcement’s use of juveniles to combat crimes perpetrated against and among children. 

A juvenile’s brain is developmentally distinct from an adult’s. During late adolescence, the brain goes through major maturation processes that significantly affect a juvenile’s ability to assess risk, make forward-thinking decisions, override emotions with logic, and resist social pressures. In other words, the juvenile brain is predisposed to act adverse to self-interests. Within the context of the modern informant system, juveniles engage with police on seriously disadvantaged ground; and because agreeing to assist police has proven to be a death sentence for some, the urgency with which this must be addressed cannot be overstated. America’s tolerance of police discretion with respect to the use of juvenile informants must end. Legislatures can facilitate change by implementing safeguards aimed at mitigating the risks posed by a juvenile’s physiological predispositions. Namely, legislatures should consider implementing mandatory cooling-off periods, a statutory right to counsel, mandatory parental and judicial consent, prescribed documentation and recordkeeping requirements, and enforced training regimens. Absent empirical data that youth at large are better protected by the abolition of the use of juvenile informants, legislatures looking to implement these suggestions or otherwise restrict the practice should be careful to balance proposed legislation with the needs of law enforcement.