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

WATCH — Fetal Pain: An Update on the Science and Legal Implications

Click to enlarge event poster.

Click to enlarge event poster.

On Wednesday, February 10, Amanda Pustilnik, JD and Maureen Strafford MD will discuss fetal pain, including advances in neuroscience and treatment and their implications for the law.

The event will be held at 12:00 pm on Wednesday, February 10, in Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East C (2036) at Harvard Law School (1585 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA).

This event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be served.

Continue reading »

Dr. Edersheim on What Obama’s Solitary Confinement Reforms Mean for Inmates

CLBB Co-Director Dr. Judith Edersheim was quoted in a FRONTLINE article on President Barack Obama’s recent announcement of his commitment to reduce the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons, particularly by ending the use of isolation on inmates under the age of 18. On the harmful effects of solitary confinement on adolescents in particular, Dr. Edersheim states,

“Adolescents are neurological sponges for their environment, and if those environments are toxic it can permanently alter their brain development in all the ways we need them to develop. Solitary confinement is arguably the worst neurotoxin in that sense.”

Read the full piece from FRONTLINE, “What Obama’s Solitary Reforms Mean for Inmates“, by Sarah Childress, published on January 26, 2016.

Dr. Buckholtz to Receive APS Award

CLBB Faculty Member Joshua Buckholtz has been chosen as one of the recipients of the 2016 Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformational Early Career Contributions. According to the website:

The APS Board of Directors established the Janet Taylor Spence Award to recognize transformative contributions to psychological science by rising stars in the field. The Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions celebrates the many new and cutting edge ideas coming out of the most creative and promising investigators who embody the future of psychological science.

The Spence award recognizes young researchers who cross traditional sub-disciplinary lines in psychological science and honors contributions that reveal the organization underlying complex behavior by drawing upon multiple fields of psychological science.

The award will be given to the most creative and promising young investigators, like Spence at the beginning of her career.

Congratulations to Dr. Joshua Buckholtz on this outstanding achievement!

Barack Obama: Why We Must Rethink Solitary Confinement

By Barack Obama | The Washington Post | January 25, 2016

In 2010, a 16-year-old named Kalief Browder from the Bronx was accused of stealing a backpack. He was sent to Rikers Island to await trial, where he reportedly endured unspeakable violence at the hands of inmates and guards — and spent nearly two years in solitary confinement.

In 2013, Kalief was released, having never stood trial. He completed a successful semester at Bronx Community College. But life was a constant struggle to recover from the trauma of being locked up alone for 23 hours a day. One Saturday, he committed suicide at home. He was just 22 years old.

Solitary confinement gained popularity in the United States in the early 1800s, and the rationale for its use has varied over time. Today, it’s increasingly overused on people such as Kalief, with heartbreaking results — which is why my administration is taking steps to address this problem.

There are as many as 100,000 people held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons — including juveniles and people with mental illnesses. As many as 25,000 inmates are serving months, even years of their sentences alone in a tiny cell, with almost no human contact.

Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences. It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior. Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones. Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses.

The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance. Those who do make it out often have trouble holding down jobs, reuniting with family and becoming productive members of society. Imagine having served your time and then being unable to hand change over to a customer or look your wife in the eye or hug your children.

As president, my most important job is to keep the American people safe. And since I took office, overall crime rates have decreased by more than 15 percent. In our criminal justice system, the punishment should fit the crime — and those who have served their time should leave prison ready to become productive members of society. How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.

That’s why last summer, I directed Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and the Justice Department to review the overuse of solitary confinement across U.S. prisons. They found that there are circumstances when solitary is a necessary tool, such as when certain prisoners must be isolated for their own protection or in order to protect staff and other inmates. In those cases, the practice should be limited, applied with constraints and used only as a measure of last resort. They have identified common-sense principles that should guide the use of solitary confinement in our criminal justice system.

The Justice Department has completed its review, and I am adopting its recommendations to reform the federal prison system. These include banning solitary confinement for juveniles and as a response to low-level infractions, expanding treatment for the mentally ill and increasing the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells. These steps will affect some 10,000 federal prisoners held in solitary confinement — and hopefully serve as a model for state and local corrections systems. And I will direct all relevant federal agencies to review these principles and report back to me with a plan to address their use of solitary confinement.

States that have led the way are already seeing positive results. Colorado cut the number of people in solitary confinement, and assaults against staff are the lowest they’ve been since 2006. New Mexico implemented reforms and has seen a drop in solitary confinement, with more prisoners engaging in promising rehabilitation programs. And since 2012, federal prisons have cut the use of solitary confinement by 25 percent and significantly reduced assaults on staff.

Reforming solitary confinement is just one part of a broader bipartisan push for criminal justice reform. Every year, we spend $80 billion to keep 2.2 million people incarcerated. Many criminals belong behind bars. But too many others, especially nonviolent drug offenders, are serving unnecessarily long sentences. That’s why members of Congress in both parties are pushing for change, from reforming sentencing laws to expanding reentry programs to give those who have paid their debt to society the tools they need to become productive members of their communities. And I hope they will send me legislation as soon as possible that makes our criminal justice system smarter, fairer, less expensive and more effective.

In America, we believe in redemption. We believe, in the words of Pope Francis, that “every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.” We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives. And if we can give them the hope of a better future, and a way to get back on their feet, then we will leave our children with a country that is safer, stronger and worthy of our highest ideals.

Barack Obama is president of the United States.

Read the entire op-ed, published in The Washington Post.

Can a Brain Scan Uncover Your Morals?

By Kamala Kelker | The Guardian | January 17, 2016

It’s hard to imagine Steven Northington killing two people. The 43-year-old says he likes to make people laugh, “like a comedian”. He’s a loyal son to his troubled mother and father. He sends his younger sister birthday cards from prison and draws elaborate smiley faces on them. His defense team laughs with affection when they hear his name because he is, they say, “a character”.

Between 2003 and 2004, Northington was slinging for a drug ring that flooded his Philadelphia neighborhood with bloodshed. The Kaboni Savage Organization was responsible for nine murders during those two years alone, including the firebombing of a house that killed two women and four children.

The government was after them, and they knew it: seven of the nine victims were murdered in retaliation against witnesses who had agreed to cooperate with prosecutors to bring the kingpin down, according to the FBI.

It wasn’t until 2013 that the federal court started its trial against ringleader Kaboni Savage, as well as his sister Kidada Savage, accomplice Robert Merritt, and Northington. The four were tried together for a total of 12 murders dating back to 1998.

Northington stood apart because he was arrested a month before the firebombing, and only charged for two of the murders – those of Barry Parker, a corner competitor of the ring, and Tybius Flowers, a childhood friend. In Flowers’s case, the execution happened hours before he was supposed to take the stand as the star witness against Savage in a 1998 murder case.

Northington was convicted by the state court in Philadelphia in 2007 for the murder of Parker. In 2013, the federal trial combined the two murders and found Northington guilty of aiding both.

And since the murders were an attempt to intimidate witnesses and in support of racketeering, federal prosecutors wanted him dead.

They asked for the death penalty.

•••

Days before he was sentenced, one of Northington’s lawyers, William Bowe, showed the jurors something they never saw during the six-month trial: images of Northington’s brain. He told them that Northington was developmentally stunted by homelessness, abuse and prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol.

Bowe said the deficiencies the scans revealed provided some explanation for Northington’s actions – not an excuse, but an extenuating set of circumstances.

“What does that mean? It means that Steven Northington doesn’t think like you and me. It means his brain doesn’t function like ours. It means when he makes a decision, he doesn’t do it like you or me. It’s broken,” he told the jury.

Brain images are becoming standard evidence in some of the country’s most controversial and disturbing death penalty cases. In March, Barack Obama’s bioethics commission released a report stating that neuroscience is used in about a quarter of capital cases, and that percentage is rising quickly.

Lawyers use scans in a few principal ways. Sometimes it’s to explain a psychiatrist’s diagnosis to help a plea of insanity, or to help prove intellectual disability. Most often they are used to ask juries for mercy during the sentencing phase of the grimmest trials.

Since the inner workings of a criminal’s mind are central to a case, any tool that might shed light on the 3-lb organ is worth considering. And brain scans have diagnostic credibility: they are fundamental in clinical settings for spotting tumors, cancer or traumatic injuries. They have been used to study aspects of behavior, such as decision-making, depression and impulse control. But in death penalty cases, the images are taken out of that medical or experimental context, and used to clarify nuances of criminal actions.

It remains unclear whether pictures of neural processes or of brain anatomy can reveal a person’s morals or the substance of their character. But despite incomplete science, brain scans are becoming crucial arbiters of life and death.

Continue reading the full article here.

This article was originally published by The Guardian.