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

Even When Inconsistent, Justice Scalia Was Certain

On Saturday, February 13, Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia passed away. CLBB Faculty Member Judge Nancy Gertner (ret.) reflects on his legacy.

By Nancy Gertner | The Boston Globe | February 14, 2016

I did not know Justice Antonin Scalia. Following the announcement of his death, I could not help but be struck by the accounts of his warmth, his friendships (notably with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, with whom he regularly disagreed on the Supreme Court), his deep religious commitment, his infectious sense of humor.

I knew him through his opinions, books, and speeches. Even though I disagreed with him much of the time, one thing is clear: His legal positions could not be ignored — not by lawyers, scholars, judges, nor the public. I had to take them seriously in my own judicial decisions and in my writing. And the need to deal with his arguments shifted the debate, even the outcomes. 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.

Justices Expand Parole Rights for Juveniles Sentenced to Life for Murder

Over the past decade, the Supreme Court has issued a series of landmark decisions around the criminal culpability of adolescents, drawing from neuroscience research. In 2005, the Court abolished the juvenile death penalty. In 2010, the Court banned life without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes other than homicide. And in 2012, the Court prohibited states from mandating life without parole for any crimes committed by minors. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that its 2012 decision must be applied retroactively, impacting over 2,000 people currently serving life sentences.

By Adam Liptak | The New York Times | January 25, 2016

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that its 2012 decision banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile killers must be applied retroactively, granting a new chance at release for hundreds of inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for murders they committed in their youth.

The vote was 6 to 3, and the majority decision was written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court’s leading proponent of cutting back on the death penalty and other harsh punishments for entire classes of offenders. His opinion strengthened the 2012 decision, which merely required new sentencing where life without parole had been imposed automatically, without taking into account the defendant’s youth.

Monday’s opinion indicated that life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders should be exceedingly rare. Justice Kennedy also gave states a second option — instead of resentencing the affected prisoners, they could make them eligible for parole. Continue reading »

Growing Use of Neurobiological Evidence in Criminal Trials

Duke University Professor of Law & Philosophy, Nita Farahany, recently published an empirical review of the growing use of neuroscience and behavioral genetics in the courtroom. This article reviews the findings and discusses the overall impact of the use of these new scientific techniques in the legal arena.

By Emily Underwood | Science | January 21, 2016

In 2008, in El Cajon, California, 30-year-old John Nicholas Gunther bludgeoned his mother to death with a metal pipe, and then stole $1378 in cash, her credit cards, a DVD/VCR player, and some prescription painkillers. At trial, Gunther admitted to the killing, but argued that his conviction should be reduced to second-degree murder because he had not acted with premeditation. A clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist testified that two previous head traumas—one the result of an assault, the other from a drug overdose—had damaged his brain’s frontal lobes, potentially reducing Gunther’s ability to plan the murder, and causing him to act impulsively. The jury didn’t buy Gunther’s defense, however; based on other evidence, such as the fact that Gunther had previously talked about killing his mother with friends, the court concluded that he was guilty of first-degree murder, and gave him a 25-years-to-life prison sentence.

Gunther’s case represents a growing trend, a new analysis suggests. Between 2005 and 2012, more than 1585 U.S. published judicial opinions describe the use of neurobiological evidence by criminal defendants to shore up their defense, according to a study published last week in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences by legal scholar Nita Farahany of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and colleagues. In 2012 alone, for example, more than 250 opinions cited defendants’ arguments that their “brains made them do it”—more than double the number of similar claims made in 2007.  Continue reading »

Chism Defense to Focus on Juvenile Brain Development as Prosecution Rests

By Rupa Shenoy | WGBH | December 1, 2015

The murder trial of 16-year-old Philip Chism case is playing out as the state and country dramatically changes the way it adjudicates juvenile crime. For the defense team, that means there are very specific things to prove as the jury decides whether Chism is or is not guilty by reason of insanity.

Prosecutors for the Commonwealth rested their case Monday against Chism, who is charged with first-degree murder with atrocity and cruelty. Chism, of Danvers, is charged as an adult in the death of his math teacher, Colleen Ritzer. Continue reading »