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

Dr. Edersheim on Why Juvenile Murderers in America Now Have a Shot at Parole

CLBB Co-Director Dr. Judith Edersheim‘s expert opinion was featured in an article with VICE on the recent Supreme Court ruling in Montgomery v. Alabama, asserting that the Court’s decision in 2012 banning life without parole sentences for juvenile defendants applied retroactively. In describing the neurological differences between adolescents and adults, Dr. Edersheim notes,

“Adolescence is a period of time when the brain is hyper plastic. It’s a period of rapidly-changing brain. Adolescents are supposed to take risks. That’s what their neurotransmitters and their brains are telling them. But they calculate risks differently from grown ups, and it has an evolutionary purpose and a neurological basis.”

The article further reports:

“According to Edersheim, the adolescent brain undergoes a period of ‘pruning’ before adulthood. So it’s not that teens just turn into crazy people—rather, their brains begin to learn to ‘process efficiently.’  And to do that, they need to take cues from their surroundings.

The neuroscience, she says, debunked the myth of the young ‘superpredator’ that preceded it.”

Read the full article, “Why Juvenile Murderers in America Now Have a Shot at Parole“, by Susan Zalkind, published by VICE on February 1, 2016.

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 »

“And if Your Friends Jumped Off a Bridge, Would you Do it Too?” – How Developmental Neuroscience can Inform Legal Regimes Governing Adolescence

By Michael N. Tennison and Amanda C. Pustilnik | Indiana Health Law Review

Introduction

On September 17, 2014, a teen boy riding in the front seat of an SUV on the highway at night had a brilliant idea: If he set the driver’s armpit hair on fire, it might impress the girls in the back. It did not turn out quite the way he planned. “Teen Setting Underarm Hair On Fire Causes Rollover Crash,” reported news outlets the next day. The SUV ran into a ditch, flipped over, and threw three of the five occupants—all teenagers, none of whom were wearing seat belts—out onto the highway. Miraculously, no one was killed.

This story is humorous and serious all at once. Humorous, because it embodies a head-shaking truth long acknowledged in our and other cultures about the crazy things kids do. Serious, because the thoughtless yet typical action of one boy could have seriously hurt or killed these four children and possibly other people on the highway that night. And it has a serious message: Teens are different from adults, on average, particularly in ways that relate to the overvaluation of present rewards and sensations, the undervaluation of negative risk, the tremendous salience of their desire for peer approval, and their tendency to act in even more risky and thoughtless ways when they are together in groups.

Continue reading the article here.

WATCH — “Should the Science of Adolescent Brain Development Inform Legal Policy?”

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Click to enlarge event poster.

In the past decade, the United States Supreme Court has issued landmark opinions in three cases that involved the criminal culpability of juveniles. 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. In all three cases, the Court drew on scientific studies of the adolescent brain in concluding that adolescents, by virtue of their inherent psychological and neurobiological immaturity, are not as responsible for their behavior as adults.

Drawing on findings from a 20-year program of work on adolescent decision making and risk taking, Laurence Steinberg, PhD discussed the Court’s rationale in these cases and the role that scientific evidence about adolescent brain development played in its decisions. He concluded that in discussions of adolescents’ treatment under criminal law, juveniles’ greater amenability to rehabilitation is more important than their diminished culpability. Moreover, he argued that neuroscientific evidence should supplement, rather than supplant, findings from behavioral science.

This event was free and open to the public. Lunch was served.

This public lecture took place at 12:00 pm, on Friday, November 13, in Austin Hall (111) at Harvard Law School.

Continue reading »

The Terrible Teens

By Elizabeth Kolbert | The New Yorker | August 31, 2015

C57BL/6J mice are black, with pink ears and long pink tails. Inbred for the purposes of experimentation, they exhibit a number of infelicitous traits, including a susceptibility to obesity, a taste for morphine, and a tendency to nibble off their cage mates’ hair. They’re also tipplers. Given access to ethanol, C57BL/6J mice routinely suck away until the point that, were they to get behind the wheel of a Stuart Little-size roadster, they’d get pulled over for D.U.I.

Not long ago, a team of researchers at Temple University decided to take advantage of C57BL/6Js’ bad habits to test a hunch. They gathered eighty-six mice and placed them in Plexiglas cages, either singly or in groups of three. Then they spiked the water with ethanol and videotaped the results.

Half of the test mice were four weeks old, which, in murine terms, qualifies them as adolescents. The other half were twelve-week-old adults. When the researchers watched the videos, they found that the youngsters had, on average, outdrunk their elders. More striking still was the pattern of consumption. Young male C57BL/6Js who were alone drank roughly the same amount as adult males. But adolescent males with cage mates went on a bender; they spent, on average, twice as much time drinking as solo boy mice and about thirty per cent more time than solo girls.

The researchers published the results in the journal Developmental Science. In their paper, they noted that it was “not possible” to conduct a similar study on human adolescents, owing to the obvious ethical concerns. But, of course, similar experiments are performed all the time, under far less controlled circumstances. Just ask any college dean. Or ask a teen-ager. I happen to have three adolescent sons and in this way recently learned about a supposedly fun pastime known as a “case race.” Participants form teams of two and compete to see which pair can drink its way through a case of beer the fastest. (To get the most out of the experience, I was told, it’s best to use a “thirty rack.”)

Every adult has gone through adolescence, and studies have shown that if you ask people to look back on their lives they will disproportionately recall experiences they had between the ages of ten and twenty-five. (This phenomenon is called the “reminiscence bump.”) And yet, to adults, the adolescent mind is a mystery—a Brigadoon-like place that’s at once vivid and inaccessible. Why would anyone volunteer to down fifteen beers in a row? Under what circumstances could Edward Fortyhands, an activity that involves having two forty-ounce bottles of malt liquor affixed to your hands with duct tape, be construed as enjoyable? And what goes for drinking games also goes for hooking up with strangers, jumping from high places into shallow pools, and steering a car with your knees. At moments of extreme exasperation, parents may think that there’s something wrong with their teen-agers’ brains. Which, according to recent books on adolescence, there is.  Continue reading »