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

NFL Doctors Should Not Report to Teams, Harvard Study Recommends

This article highlights a recent report published by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, entitled, “Protecting and Promoting the Health of NFL Players: Legal and Ethical Analysis and Recommendations”

By Rick Maese | The Washington Post | November 17, 2016

A new report from Harvard University proposes drastic changes in the way health care is administered in the NFL, urging the nation’s most popular sports league to upend its system of medicine and untangle the loyalties of the doctors and trainers charged with treating players.

Asserting that the long-standing current structure has inherent conflicts of interest, the 493-page report outlines a new system in which a team’s medical staff is devoted solely to players’ interests and no longer reports to team management or coaches.

“The intersection of club doctors’ dual obligations creates significant legal and ethical quandaries that can threaten player health,” the report states. Continue reading »

The Corruption Continuum: When Giving Gifts Bleeds to Bribery

By Nancy Gertner | The Washington Post | May 6, 2016

Nancy Gertner is a retired federal district court judge and a senior lecturer at Harvard Law School, and a CLBB Senior Faculty member. She is a signatory of an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case United States v. McDonnell, on behalf of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell.

When we talk about political corruption, what often comes to mind is what the law calls “quid pro quo”: I give a politician money and in exchange he or she gets me a government contract or votes in my favor. But there is a continuum of quid pro quo exchanges, some plainly illegal, some not and some ambiguous.

In the case of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell, the Supreme Court will decide whether it is constitutional to prosecute a public official for conduct on that continuum, conduct never before determined to be at the illegal end. The issue is not whether we should regulate gifts to public officials; the issue is whether the criminal law can be used as a bludgeon when we have not done so. I think not. As a matter of due process, criminal prosecutions can be brought only when we have clearly defined what is legal and what is not.

Continue reading »

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.

Why We Can’t Trust Ben Carson’s Memories — or Anyone Else’s

By Justin Wm. Moyer | The Washington Post | November 9, 2015

Since last week, sometime Republican presidential front-runner Ben Carson has been battling stories about his stories of his dark past. In a 1990 memoir and in many speeches since, he claimed he was a violent youth; that he had tried to hit his mother with a hammer; that he had tried to stab a classmate at 14; that he had punched another with a lock in his hand. The problem: CNN went looking for people who could confirm these tales of schoolyard fisticuffs or worse, and the network couldn’t find any.

“We went out to find these people in Detroit,” CNN’s Maeve Reston said. “We went through the yearbooks. We called many of his classmates. We found his close friends through every period of his life. And the person that he describes in these anecdotes on the campaign trail as leading up to this religious epiphany that he had cannot remember any episodes of violence involving Dr. Carson.”

It turned out Carson had used pseudonyms for his victims and, though he said he was still in touch with at least one of them, wouldn’t make them available. It was a question of privacy, he said — even after a flawed Politico story about Carson’s alleged “full scholarship” to West Point raised more questions about his memory. Over the weekend, Carson suggested that the media find another tale to tell.

“It’s time to really move on,” he said on “Meet the Press.” “It’s not time to spend every single day talking about something that happened 50 years ago.”

But Carson’s memory problems are not unique to the pediatric neurosurgeon. They are shared by at least one of his rivals for the presidential nomination; they are shared by countless memoirists and witnesses to crimes; indeed, they are shared by anyone who remembers anything. For study after study shows that our memories deceive us, even when we insist they do not. Continue reading »

The U.S. Court System is Criminally Unjust

By Ana Swanson | The Washington Post | July 20, 2015

We like to believe that decisions made in U.S. courts are determined by the wisdom of the Constitution, and guided by fair-minded judges and juries of our peers.

Unfortunately, this is often wishful thinking. Unsettling research into the psychology of courtroom decisions has shown that our personal backgrounds, unconscious biases about race, gender and appearance, and even the time of day play a more important role in outcomes than the actual law.

Adam Benforado, a professor of law at Drexel University, describes these unsettling problems with the justice system in the recently published book “Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice.” The book uses psychology and neuroscience to examine and expose the illogical and unfair ways that judges, jurors, attorneys and others in the legal system make decisions about who is sent to prison, and who walks free.

Benforado’s research shows that mistakes in the criminal justice system are more common than we like to think, and that our personal biases play a disturbingly strong role. He also argues that there are clear and easy steps that we could follow to limit these injustices, if we care to take them. Continue reading »