Crimes, misdemeanors and incomplete brain development

Nearly 10 years ago, the Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for crimes committed by minors in Roper v. Simmons.  Justice Anthony Kennedy, representing the majority opinion, wrote:


First, as any parent knows and as the scientific and sociological studies respondent and his amici cite tend to confirm, “[a] lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility are found in youth more often than in adults and are more understandable among the young. These qualities often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions.”

Many who study the brain, particularly brain development, applauded the decision.  In fact, several neuroscientists and psychologist help Simmons' attorney craft his case.

But how far do we take this idea?  What does this lack of development really mean in terms of legal and criminal responsibility?

Walter Madison, attorney for Ma'lik Richmond, one of the two young football players convicted of rape earlier this month in Steubenville, Ohio, believes that his client's immature brain is grounds for an appeal.  The AtlanticWire reports:

To review: Madison is arguing that a 16-year-old's brain is not fully functional enough to determine whether raping an unconscious girl is a bad decision.

...

And finally, just to be clear: neuroscience says that teenagers have "underdeveloped decision processing centers," which is why teens take risks like stealing or doing drugs. Though, science doesn't say that you can blame the rape of an underage, unconscious girl on this kind of poor decision making.

Hmm.  I'm not sure this is what neuroscientists had in mind when they jumped on the Simmons' bandwagon.  Certainly they weren't arguing that anyone under 18 who commits a crime deserves a pass--rather, they argued that, given brain development, youthful perpetrators shouldn't be sentenced to die for their crimes.  I somehow doubt that Madison will get very far with his appeal--but stranger things have happened.

Still, even if Madison was just mugging on television for ratings, there's no question that neuroscience has the power to change the way we think about crime and punishment in the future.  It may even change the way we consider criminal responsibility--a key component in how a judge or jury determines guilt

What do you think?  As we learn more about the brain, how do we draw the right lines around how it's used in criminal proceedings?

Photo credit:  arfo/Shutterstock.com

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Did you know that DIRTY MINDS has be re-titled in paperback as THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON SEX: THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE SEARCH FOR LOVE?  You can find it at major booksellers everywhere starting 3/26/13.

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