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Developmental Neuroscience and the Courts: How Science Is Influencing the Disposition of Juvenile Offenders

By Kayla Pope, MD, JD, Beatriz Luna, PhD, and Christopher R. Thomas, MD | April 2012 | Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

The clinical application of neuroscience research may not always be readily apparent, but two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions highlight how neuroscience is beginning to guide public policy. In these cases, the Supreme Court took into consideration the mounting body of research that brain processes underlying decision making are still immature during adolescence. Although this research was not central in either decision, the Court’s acknowledgment and reliance on this research raises interesting questions about how we as a society will assess questions of culpability in the future, especially with youth.

In the first of these cases, Roper v Simmons (2004), the Court was asked to consider the question of whether it was unconstitutional to execute an individual for a crime committed as a juvenile. The case involved Christopher Simmons, who at 17 years of age, planned the murder of Shirley Cook. Simmons confessed to the murder, was found guilty, and was sentenced to death. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to determine whether the sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment given that the defendant was a juvenile at the time the crime was committed. In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court held that the capital punishment of a minor did constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, noted that there is a body of sociologic and scientific research that juveniles have a lack of maturity and sense of responsibility compared with adults. Further, adolescents are found to be overrepresented statistically in virtually every category of reckless behavior. The Court also noted that research has found that juveniles are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure, and they have less control, or experience with control, over their own environment.

In the second of these cases, Graham v Florida (2010), the Court was asked to determine whether it was unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life without the opportunity for parole for a crime that did not involve homicide. This case involved Terrance Jamar Graham, who at 16 years of age, robbed a BBQ store. Graham pled guilty and was convicted of armed burglary. Six months later he was rearrested for armed burglary and was sentenced to life without parole. In deciding the case, the Court evaluated whether it was cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile to a life sentence without the opportunity for parole. In a 6-to-3 decision, the Court ruled it was unconstitutional, and Justice Kennedy reaffirmed the Court’s position in Roper that juveniles have less culpability because their immature development makes them more likely to engage in reckless behavior. Thus, they are less deserving of the most serious forms of punishment.

Read the full paper here.