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.

‘Why the Innocent Plead Guilty’: An Exchange

By Nancy Gertner | The New York Review of Books | January 8, 2015 issue

In response to Judge Jed Rakoff’s piece “Why Innocent People Plea Guilty” in The New York Review of Books, CLBB faculty, former Federal Judge, and Harvard Law School Professor Nancy Gertner submitted the following letter to the editor. Gertner targets threats, coercion, and prosecutorial power as reasons innocent people plead guilty.

To the Editors:

Judge Jed S. Rakoff’s article “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty” is spot on, but doesn’t go far enough. True, we have a federal plea system, not a trial system. True, to call the process “plea bargaining” is a cruel misnomer. There is nothing here remotely like fair bargaining between equal parties with equal resources or equal information. The prosecutors’ power—as Judge Rakoff describes—is extraordinary, far surpassing that of prosecutors of years past, and in most cases, far surpassing the judge’s. Judge John Gleeson, a federal judge of the Eastern District of New York, made this clear during a case involving a charge for which there is a mandatory minimum sentence. As a result of the prosecutor’s decision to charge the defendant with an offense for which there is a mandatory minimum sentence, no judging was going on about the sentence. The prosecutor sentenced the defendant, not the judge, with far less transparency and no appeal.

Indeed, there were times during my seventeen-year tenure on the federal bench in Massachusetts that inquiring of a defendant as to the voluntariness of his guilty plea felt like a Kabuki ritual. “Has anyone coerced you to plead guilty,” I would ask, and I felt like adding, “like thumbscrews or waterboarding? Anything less than that—a threatened tripling of your sentence should you go to trial, for example—doesn’t count.” Continue reading »

Landmark Legislative Trends in Juvenile Justice: An Update and Primer for Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists

By Eraka Bath, MD, Shawn Sidhu, MD, and Sofia Stepanyan, BA | July 2013 | Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

Over the past decade, a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases have enhanced the legal rights for youth involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. These cases, considered landmark cases in psychiatry and the law, reflect an evolving understanding of the interplay among culpability, neurocognitive development, and adolescent behavior. Fortunately, these legislative trends represent significant gains in improving due-process protections for juveniles and have shifted the pendulum toward a more neurodevelopmental approach in thinking about culpability and rehabilitation in young offenders, a vulnerable population with high levels of psychiatric morbidity. Continue reading »

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. Continue reading »