News and Commentary Archive

Explore recent scientific discoveries and news as well as CLBB events, commentary, and press.

Mission

The speed of technology in neuroscience as it impacts ethical and just decisions in the legal system needs to be understood by lawyers, judges, public policy makers, and the general public. The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior is an academic and professional resource for the education, research, and understanding of neuroscience and the law. Read more

‘Why the Innocent Plead Guilty’: An Exchange

By Nancy Gertner | The New York Review of Books | January 8, 2015 issue

In response to Judge Jed Rakoff’s piece “Why Innocent People Plea Guilty” in The New York Review of Books, CLBB faculty, former Federal Judge, and Harvard Law School Professor Nancy Gertner submitted the following letter to the editor. Gertner targets threats, coercion, and prosecutorial power as reasons innocent people plead guilty.

To the Editors:

Judge Jed S. Rakoff’s article “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty” is spot on, but doesn’t go far enough. True, we have a federal plea system, not a trial system. True, to call the process “plea bargaining” is a cruel misnomer. There is nothing here remotely like fair bargaining between equal parties with equal resources or equal information. The prosecutors’ power—as Judge Rakoff describes—is extraordinary, far surpassing that of prosecutors of years past, and in most cases, far surpassing the judge’s. Judge John Gleeson, a federal judge of the Eastern District of New York, made this clear during a case involving a charge for which there is a mandatory minimum sentence. As a result of the prosecutor’s decision to charge the defendant with an offense for which there is a mandatory minimum sentence, no judging was going on about the sentence. The prosecutor sentenced the defendant, not the judge, with far less transparency and no appeal.

Indeed, there were times during my seventeen-year tenure on the federal bench in Massachusetts that inquiring of a defendant as to the voluntariness of his guilty plea felt like a Kabuki ritual. “Has anyone coerced you to plead guilty,” I would ask, and I felt like adding, “like thumbscrews or waterboarding? Anything less than that—a threatened tripling of your sentence should you go to trial, for example—doesn’t count.” Continue reading »

Young people’s brain development gives us window for change

By Marc Schindler | Juvenile Justice Information Exchange | December 18, 2014

Marc Schindler

Marc Schindler

We know more today than ever before about what makes young people tick. The field of juvenile justice has benefited from a wealth of serious research on adolescent development and brain science, in part thanks to the groundbreaking scholarship from the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, which began in 1997.

And during this week’s ninth annual MacArthur Models for Change conference, it was clear that this information and the initiative’s work have influenced how we talk and think about young people and juvenile justice.

There has been much progress in juvenile justice reform over the past decade, including 45 percent fewer young people confined and policy changes in 24 states to reduce the number of youths transferred to adult court or housed in adult facilities.

However, clearly we still have a long way to go in translating this research into practice. Continue reading »

Justices to decide if a ban on life terms for juveniles applies retroactively

By Adam Liptak | The New York Times | December 12, 2014

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed to decide on Friday whether a decision it made in 2012 barring mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile killers must be applied retroactively.

The case concerns George Toca, a Louisiana man who was 17 in 1984 when, according to witnesses, he fatally shot a friend during a botched armed robbery. Mr. Toca was convicted of second-degree murder and automatically sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, as required by Louisiana law.

Continue reading »

Scientists Chart Spinal Circuitry Responsible for Chronic Pain

Scicasts | December 9, 2014

Pain typically has a clear cause – but not always. When a person touches something hot or bumps into a sharp object, it’s no surprise that it hurts. But for people with certain chronic pain disorders, including fibromyalgia and phantom limb pain, a gentle caress can result in agony.

In a major breakthrough, a team led by researchers at the Salk Institute and Harvard Medical School have identified an important neural mechanism in the spinal cord that appears to be capable of sending erroneous pain signals to the brain. Continue reading »

Why Painful Memories Linger

Christopher Wanjek | Live Science | December 8, 2014

Memories of traumatic events can be hard to shake, and now scientists say they understand why. Studies on laboratory rats have revealed, for the first time, the brain mechanism that translates unpleasant experiences into long-lasting memories.

The findings support a 65-year-old hypothesis called Hebbian plasticity. This idea states that in the face of trauma, such as watching a dog sink its teeth into your leg, more neurons in the brain fire electrical impulses in unison and make stronger connections to each other than under normal situations. Stronger connections make stronger memories. Continue reading »