News and Commentary Archive

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


The Center for Law, Brain & Behavior puts the most accurate and actionable neuroscience in the hands of judges, lawyers, policymakers and journalists—people who shape the standards and practices of our legal system and affect its impact on people’s lives. We work to make the legal system more effective and more just for all those affected by the law.

How Monogram Is Using AI to Help Empower Incarcerated Youth

Digital agency Monogram teamed up with neuroscience researchers on a tool to reduce the number of incarcerated adolescents

By Chloe Aiello, Reporter, Inc., June 14, 2024

There’s a new tool in the fight for juvenile justice: an artificial intelligence-powered library.

Attorneys, judges, and even individuals who are incarcerated can now access the latest neuroscience and social science research at their own reading comprehension level, with the help of design engineering agency Monogram (No. 589 on 2023’s Inc. 5000 list). The Alpharetta, Georgia-based startup teamed up with the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) NeuroLaw Library at Massachusetts General Hospital, which is a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, to create an AI-powered digital library. The resource is intended to democratize information on adolescent brains and behavior in hopes that it will be a valuable resource for people caught up in, or working in, the juvenile justice system.

“We’re using AI to help Harvard get this information out to as many people as possible,” Monogram co-founder and managing director DJ Patel says. “And if we can get even one person out of jail that doesn’t need to be in jail, we’ve won.”

Users who access the free online library will find articles from academic journals, amicus briefs, affidavits, court cases, as well as educational videos and toolkits all related to juvenile justice. The information is available to anyone, but specifically intended for people who are incarcerated, their legal representation, prosecutors, and other stakeholders in the juvenile justice system. That also includes judges, probation officers, and policymakers. 

Google’s generative AI, Gemini 1.5 Pro, came into play by generating accessible translations of research and legal documents. Users who open a document will see a slider on one side of their screen. Moving the slider to the left adjusts the reading comprehension level in five intervals, with the rightmost option being the paper’s original text and the leftmost a summary at roughly a 6th-grade comprehension level.

Patel imagines a child in jail using the library. Although that person may not understand the original text of a document, Monogram’s slider “can take that document and translate it into whatever you’re capable of understanding,” Patel says.

Monogram is a design engineering agency that partners with companies like Vercel, Algolia, Stripe, and Contentful to design cutting edge websites and branding for clients like GitHub, BigCommerce, Google’s Angular, grocery store chain Hy-Vee, and others. Monogram came to work with Stephanie Tabashneck, the founding director of the CLBB NeuroLaw Library, through a referral from a friend of Tabashneck’s who had worked with Monogram. The company was then selected as a vendor to respond to a request for proposal.

The prompt seemed like a simple one: build a digital library to make the neuroscience research at CLBB widely available. The intention was to “level the playing field, especially for children and late adolescents who were facing serious charges,” says Tabashneck, who is also a forensic psychologist and attorney. The idea originally came from CLBB co-founder Dr. Judith Edersheim, who asked if Tabashneck would direct the library about a year and a half ago. 

“At that time we had no idea what it meant to create a digital library so a lot of this was building the plane while it was flying with half the parts missing or falling off,” Tabashneck says.

Tabashneck says the primary audience for the NeuroLibrary’s research is people working in the legal system or people who are incarcerated, and that it is “not uncommon for defendants to be educating their attorneys,” as people can become “remarkably educated” about the legal system during a long incarceration. The resource is meant to help people understand their legal options, as well as to make sense of their own brain functioning, particularly if they committed a horrific crime when they were younger. Tabashneck also emphasized that while people who are incarcerated may enter the system as juveniles, they may only be eligible for parole when they are adults, so a wide range of age groups would likely use the resource.

Of course, a document being available doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s accessible. Much of the research that could fundamentally change someone’s sentencing-and life-can be found in dense academic texts, kept effectively out of reach due to the time, education level, or technology required to use it. Tabashneck says the team always wanted to include educational training and supplemental information to make the information more accessible, but it was Monogram that dreamed up the idea to use AI. 

“It actually was an ‘aha moment’ that happened during the creative discovery process,” says TJ Kohli, Monogram co-founder and creative director. “Libraries don’t provide context. They provide the content, the data that you’re looking for. In this case, we were able to build a really good library and provide context in addition to that with AI.”

Tabashneck says AI was a “real game changer” for accessibility, given there are roughly 500 different articles in the database. “If you’re including each iteration of reading level, that’s 2,500 different writing products,” she says.

That doesn’t mean people weren’t involved. Generative AI has a reputation for hallucinations, or generating false or misleading information. To solve that problem, the CLBB team tasked research assistants with reading over every AI-mediated translation of every research paper to ensure that there were no inconsistencies.

Tabashneck adds that it wasn’t as simple as prompting the AI to generate grade-level versions of the text because “the translation will make it sound like you’re talking to a kid, and say things like, ‘Isn’t it cool that your brain does this,” which she says may come across as “patronizing.” Kohli adds that labeling on the slider and its various reading levels was left intentionally abstract so as not to “alienate” readers. Beyond that, they also used AI to generate a short summary of a text that gives readers an immediate sense of what they are reading. 

Compared to other work from Monogram, CLBB’s website is pared back and utilitarian, or as Kohli says, “fast, efficient, intuitive” and designed to make every click count. The website, for example, starts loading a page the instant a user hovers over a link.

“If you’re in a correctional facility, and you have 10 minutes to be on a computer, lag time matters,” Tabashneck says. “These are things that we did for accessibility, but contributed to a stronger website overall.”

The NeuroLaw Library is a cutting edge resource to address the ongoing problem of youth incarceration in the U.S. The U.S. leads the industrial world in incarceration of children, according to Human Rights Watch. Estimates on the numbers of people who are incarcerated under the age of 18 vary. A 2021 report from the Sentencing Project tallies roughly 25,000 minors in youth facilities, as well as an additional 2,300 in adult facilities, whereas the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that some 60,000 youth are incarcerated “on any given day” in the United States.

And the “system is very Black and brown,” according to Marsha Levick, chief legal officer and co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center. Black minors are about 4.7 times more likely to be detained as white ones, according to the Sentencing Project. The Juvenile Law Center has a “working relationship,” Levick says, with CLBB, relying on its research to inform cases. The NeuroLaw Library also contains a number of amicus briefs from the Juvenile Law Center and other organizations.

Although Levick says the number of youth who are incarcerated is “still too high,” given the harms of juvenile incarceration, it still represents a substantial decline over the past 15 years. Research on social and behavioral science, psychology, and neuroscience has informed a series of landmark court cases that have, among other actions, eliminated the death penalty for adolescent crimes and found mandatory life-without-parole sentences unconstitutional.

Even if teenagers tend to be impulsive and vulnerable to peer pressure, “this idea that once a bad kid, always a bad kid-or always a bad adult-is not supported by neuroscience,” Tabashneck says.

What research does suggest is that certain structural and functional changes in the brain occur during adolescence, according to a paper published in the Journal of the American Judges Association in 2014 and found on the CLBB NeuroLaw Library. These changes contribute to increased reward-seeking or risk-taking behavior, and lack of impulse control when emotions are high. The paper cites studies that suggest there is no fixed age or timeline when an adolescent brain matures into an adult brain.

“Neurodevelopment and neuroscience really helps to explain the unexplainable,” says Tabashneck. “This information can help shed light on why someone who at 16 did something really terrible may not be still at risk at age 50.”

The website launched on June 10, so it’s too soon for any potential success stories to emerge from the slow-moving justice system. But CLBB demonstrated the resource to organizations including the Juvenile Law Center, the National Center for Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and the Sentencing Project and received “some great feedback,” Tabashneck says. Furthermore, those organizations as well as the ACLU and the Innocence Project are helping to spread the word about the library.

Already, they are seeing major traction. The Maine Department of Corrections says it is currently exploring “widespread implementation” of CLBB’s NeuroLaw Library in both juvenile and adult justice facilities across the state. Tabashneck says that could mean making the content accessible for corrections staff, featuring the resource on the department’s website, and working to potentially make it available on tablets in the juvenile facilities. Implementation could take place as soon as this summer or fall.

Levick, who has been working in the juvenile justice system for decades, says one measure of success for a tool like CLBB would be the extent to which it can “shrink the footprint of the juvenile justice system.”

“It’s critically important to us that however we respond to criminal conduct by children, that we treat kids as kids,” Levick says, “and that we really focus on responses that are designed to rehabilitate them, to restore their interactions, to think about restorative justice between young people and victims and survivors.”

Find the full Inc. article here.

CLBB Contributes to Landmark Decision by Mass Supreme Judicial Court to Ban Mandatory Life Sentences for 18- to 20-Year-Olds

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court announced on January 11, 2024 its decision that the state’s mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) is unconstitutional for emerging and young adults ages 18 to 20 who are convicted of homicide. The long-awaited ruling in the case of Mattis vs. Massachusetts means that 203 incarcerated persons previously sentenced to LWOP will eventually be eligible for a parole or resentencing hearing after serving at least 15 years. Prior to the state’s highest court ruling, Massachusetts was only one of ten states with a LWOP mandatory sentence for persons over 18 who are found guilty of homicide. 

Research on Neurodevelopment

The 4-3 majority decision by the Court was based on the enormous body of scientific evidence about neurodevelopment demonstrating that an individual’s brain continues to develop well into their twenties. The brains of the 20-year-old and the 13-year-old are similar when it comes to acting on impulse, taking risks, seeking immediate reward and yielding to peer influence. “The scientific record strongly supports the contention that emerging adults have the same core neurological characteristics as juveniles have. As such, they must be granted a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” wrote Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd in the majority opinion.

Mattis Case

The case involved Sheldon Mattis who was sentenced to LWOP for involvement in a homicide in 2011, when he was 18 years old. The 17-year-old Nyasani Watt who fired the gun was just 10 days shy of his 18th birthday, and was tried and sentenced as a juvenile. In 2013 Massachusetts had banned mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles (under the age of 18) who were guilty of first-degree murder. Watt was therefore deemed eligible for a parole hearing after serving 15 years. Mattis, who was sentenced as an adult, will now have the same opportunity. 

2022 Ruling Upheld

The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision upholds the 2022 finding by Suffolk County Superior Court Judge Robert Ullman that mandatory life prison terms of adults under 21 constitute cruel or unusual punishment, which is banned by the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. In 2020, the Supreme Judicial Court had rejected Mattis’ appeal, but expressed concern about the disparity in sentences that Mattis and Watt received. It directed Judge Ullman to undertake a review of the evolving research on brain development and to determine whether the prohibition on mandatory life sentences should be extended to 18- to 20-year-olds. He ruled that it should. “The Court concludes that there is a mismatch between the culpability of 18- through 20-year-olds as a class and mandatory life without parole sentences that preclude a judge from granting parole eligibility”, he wrote. 

Expert Testimony

Judge Ullman’s 32-page opinion was informed by live testimony from CLBB’s Executive Director Robert Kinscherff, PhD, JD, and national experts Adriana Galvan, PhD (UCLA) and Stephen Morse, JD, PhD (University of Pennsylvania) and by written testimony from Laurence Steinberg, PhD (Temple University). CLBB’s 2021 White Paper on the Science of Late Adolescence was provided as an exhibit. 

Longstanding efforts through the courts to reform juvenile and young adult justice date back to cases in the 1960s, and include landmark cases such as the US Supreme Court’s ban in Roper v. Simmons (2005) of the death penalty for capital offenses committed under age 18. “With the findings of our two courts in Massachusetts, neuroscience in the law has come of age,” said Dr. Kinscherff. “We knew intuitively and experientially that there’s no hard line between adolescence and adulthood, but it took the advent of MRI and fMRI technologies to show us exactly why.”

Raise the Age bill is ‘smart on crime’

By Dr. Robert Kinscherff, May 31, 2023, 2:00 a.m.

The editorial supporting “Raise the Age” legislation is consistent with years of research in criminology, developmental psychology, and brain science (“An unfinished piece of criminal justice reform business: Raising the age for juvenile offenders,” May 25). Raise the Age legislation is an important step to being “smart on crime” while avoiding the tired rhetoric of being “hard” or “soft” on crime. Young people who commit crimes would be held accountable but in ways that are developmentally aligned and don’t result in increasing risks of committing future crimes. Simply put, this evidence-based “smart” approach for young adult offenders reduces criminal recidivism, and that makes communities safer. It also reduces criminal justice and prison costs and offers young people an early offramp from criminal offending and an onramp toward a productive and safe life. This is a win for all of us.

Read Dr. Robert Kinscherff’s full Letter to the Editor here.

An unfinished piece of criminal justice reform business: Raising the age for juvenile offenders

New research supports a new approach to dealing with ‘emerging adults.’

By The Editorial Board, May 25, 2023, 4:00 a.m.

Facts are indeed stubborn things. And the facts produced in study after study support the notion that throwing youthful offenders — those 18 to 21 — into an adult prison system is counterproductive.

It vastly increases the likelihood they’ll end up back in prison, harms their “physical and mental health, impedes their educational and career success, and often exposes them to abuse,” according to a recent national study by The Sentencing Project.

“And the use of confinement is plagued by severe racial and ethnic disparities,” the study also noted — a data point that holds up for Massachusetts as well.

Meanwhile, evolving research on the late adolescent brain (defined as ages 18 to 21) has told us a great deal that many involved in the administration of justice (not to mention parents) know intuitively — that the age group is prone to risk taking, peer pressure, and “more sensation-seeking behavior” than those over 21.

The research cries out for us as a society to look at how those late adolescents are treated within the state’s criminal justice system and whether it’s time to do things differently — to keep most of those “emerging adults” out of adult prisons.

In 2013, the state raised the age for juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 18, thus keeping 17-year-olds in the juvenile system. An attempt in 2018 to increase the age of “criminal majority” to 19 as part of a sweeping criminal justice reform act caused such a brouhaha that it was dropped and left to a task force for further study.

This year state Senate President Karen Spilka told the Globe editorial board raising the age limit was on her priority list.

“It’s a matter Massachusetts could lead the way on and really make a difference in young lives,” she said.

“Some of the sheriffs are doing great programming” for youthful offenders, she added, “but they still end up with [adult criminal] records. This is an important thing in terms of our justice system.”

In fact, as if to show the seriousness of her intentions, this year the Senate president swapped out the Senate Reimagining Massachusetts Committee for a new Juvenile and Emerging Adult Justice Committee under the leadership of state Senator Brendan Crighton of Lynn.

State Representative Jim O’Day is leading the effort on the House side with a bill that would keep 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds in the juvenile system — raising the age gradually over the next five years. (That would not change the rules for those accused of murder, who can be tried as adults beginning at age 14.)

The Department of Youth Services currently can hold those sentenced as juveniles for certain serious crimes until age 21 and likely wouldn’t need much in the way of ramp-up time to accommodate a new cohort of youthful offenders, particularly if the age limit is raised gradually.

And by all accounts, DYS has done a good job of keeping those youthful offenders assigned to its care from coming back into the criminal justice system.

“Since raising the age in 2013 to include 17-year-olds, Massachusetts has seen a reduction in juvenile crime, a decrease in [the] number of cases arraigned and a decrease in new commitments to DYS (through 2022),” according to a report by Citizens for Juvenile Justice.

The results for those committed have also been impressive. The reconviction rate for those committed to DYS facilities was 26 percent, compared to 55 percent for late adolescents in the adult system. And yet the crimes for the two groups were remarkably similar, the study found — largely misdemeanors like simple assault, disorderly conduct, shoplifting, and alcohol-related offenses.

Sure, there are other ways of dealing with youthful offenders. Late last month Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden announced a pilot pretrial diversion program to begin this summer for 18- to 25-year-olds out of Dorchester District Court.

“The goal is always to keep kids out of the system and give them the opportunity to succeed,” Hayden said in introducing the program.

A “pre-arraignment” program aimed at first-time offenders or those with “limited” criminal histories could result in a clean slate for those who successfully complete the program. A parallel presentencing diversion program would also include the possibility of ultimate dismissal of a case.

And the program could be expanded to other courts in the county, Hayden indicated.

But a systemic approach, like the “Raise the Age” bill, is the best way to help level the playing field statewide and help address the racial disparities endemic in the current system where Black and Latino young adults are 3.2 and 1.7 times as likely to be imprisoned as their white counterparts.

Raising the age for juvenile defendants is one of those bits of unfinished business from a trailblazing piece of legislation now five years into its implementation. Today, given the state of scientific research on developing brains, the case is even stronger to keep young adults out of a prison system ill-equipped to provide the education and the rehabilitation they need. Today it’s time to try something different, something better.

Read the full Boston Globe article here.