Scholars weigh in on the role of neuroscience in juvenile justice

This past Monday, September 28, Harvard Law School hosted a panel titled, From Troubled Teens to Tsarnaev: Promises and Perils of Adolescent Neuroscience and Law. On the panel were members from the Center for Law Brain and Behavior (CLBB) Dr. Judith Edersheim and Dr. Nancy Somerville, retired Judge Nancy Gertner, and Dr. Robert Kinscherff, Senior Fellow with the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience.

During the panel the speakers each gave a mini-lecture on their expertise, starting with Dr. Somerville. She spoke about how an adolescent brain is physically different from an adult’s brain and how we can see these differences in the way teens behave. Their behavior differs specifically during reward-based activities which is evidenced by the many studies she cited; one study by Decker, et al. (2015) showed that adolescents relied more heavily on direct experiences when navigating their way through a virtual environment to find rewards than adults did. 

The panelists answer a question from the audience about the death penalty decision for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

The panelists answer a question from the audience about the death penalty decision for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Nancy Gertner and Dr. Kinscherff spoke more about the difficulties faced by all within the legal system when punishing adolescent offenders. Kinscherff touched on the issue of adolescent brain development in juvenile justice and that young brains are affected by their developmental surroundings. He also spoke about how a juvenile’s brain is fundamentally different from an adult’s and how this should come into consideration while evaluating their competence to stand trial, their capacity related to decisions about pleading and trial strategy.

Gertner spoke more about how difficult the suggestions made by Kinscherff would be to implement. She focused on how science has created the ability for judges to use individual discretion for children, but how the lack of education on ways to go about this is almost nonexistent. She said that, “our our country has had a movement to the punitive over the past 50 years,” and tried to speak of the difficulties that judges face when attempting to use discretion for adolescent sentencing. Judges face a world where science gives them a great deal of knowledge about the group, but tells them nothing about how to apply those principles to specific cases. And that there’s no formula for discretion to apply based on an individual brain. The science just isn’t there yet, so judges end up being more risk-adverse and air on the side of caution. This means that adolescents face harsh sentences and extended jail time. 

Kinscherff summed up the panel’s message when he said that there is a growing agreement that the U.S. Department of Justice shouldn’t be, “hard on crime or soft on crime,” but that they should be, “smart on crime.”