In an article by Terry A. Maroney in the Notre Dame Law Review, he discusses the limitations of the use of neuroscience and development psychology findings in the juvenile justice court. Roper v. Simmons was the Supreme Court case in 2005 that outlawed the death penalty for juveniles, and this decision was largely based on evidence that discussed incomplete development of the juvenile brain that contributes to poor decision making, and that makes death penalty used in adult cases inappropriate for juveniles. Aside from this major contribution in changing policy related to juvenile sentencing, neuroscience and developmental psychology has played little role in decreasing sentencing in any other punishment with the argument of the developing brain not allowing for proper decision making (and therefore inadequate mens rea in court to charge the same as an adult case). For example, in cases dealing with juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) neuroscience arguments used in Roper are largely unsuccessful in reducing the sentence, and judges have “tended to dismiss arguments based in developmental neuroscience, often under the rationale that it fails to offer anything meaningfully new but also because it fits poorly with record evidence as to mens rea or aggravating factors.” Essentially, scientific evidence has been limited in its applicability in juvenile cases because of how general the findings are, making it difficult to apply to individual cases.
Although there is much less applicability in influencing decision making, neuroscience should have more traction in the legal system with regards to rehabilitation and creating ways to deter juveniles from criminal behavior. Rehabilitation plans directed by neuroscience research would be more successful in implementation, and more likely to produce positive changes in behavior than in the adult system because of plasticity, or the ability for reshaping of neural circuitry, in the developing brain. In other words, brains of juveniles can still be shaped, making their actions more malleable and better targets for treatment. A recent trend that attempts to use this knowledge is the option for Mental Health Courts for children with mental or psychological disorders. The estimated prevalence of mental disorders for youth in the juvenile justice system is around 60%. These courts place special emphasis on rehabilitation efforts like counseling and behavioral therapy with mandatory follow-ups in court as part of the sentencing. However, this is the only option for those who have documented psychological disorders or substance abuse problems, and for those who have already been sentenced. Although this is a step in the right direction for those who have been charged in the juvenile health system, I believe more students should be required to seek counseling in schools prior to the conviction of a crime. If there were more counseling programs in school, and better screening programs to target at-risk youth and those who show initial signs of disturbance, they can receive counseling that can prevent crime from taking place.
Maroney, Terry A., The False Promise of Adolescent Brain Science in Juvenile Justice (May 18, 2009). Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 85, p. 89, 2010; Gruter Institute Squaw Valley Conference 2009: Law, Behavior & the Brain. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1405367