Neuroscience for Policy, Neuroscience for Society

By Katherine Bassil 

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Kalief Browder was convicted of stealing a backpack. He was 16 years old at the time. His case became a nationwide touchstone of a faulty criminal justice system. Despite lack of evidence, Kalief was found guilty and had to spend three years in prison, two of which he spent in solitary confinement. Kalief was not kept in prison because of the evidence that was found in relation to his crime but because his family did not have the means to bail him out. 

Neuroscience has made major advancements in our understanding of human behavior and brain development. This new understanding has helped us create, in some ways, a more fair legal and judicial system, that ensures the protection of both the victim and the convicted criminal, particularly in the case of juvenile delinquents. For instance, in 2005 the death penalty for juvenile delinquents was abolished in the United States, after it was argued to be unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment that outlaws cruel and unusual forms of punishment. It was particularly due to research into developmental neuroscience of adolescence that led to changes in the criminal justice system but also stimulated movements in the public health sector, drawing attention to the problem. In fact, the press played a major role in drawing attention to emerging neuroscience research which eventually pushed public health campaigns to do draw attention and encourage action to emerging social problems. 

Scientists have a moral responsibility to inform policies that protect the mental health of individuals, especially children and young adults, whom according to the United Nation (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child merit particular protection of their rights due to their vulnerability. Every finding in neuroscience that can have implications for society should be communicated and translated into policies. The neuroscience of risky behavior for example, provides support to the fact that young offenders have the ability to become law-abiding adults given that they are provided with an environment and enough support for healthy brain development. 

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Case in point: It has been observed that a large group of young adults, typically aged between 18 and 25, are more likely to show risky or impulse-driven behavior – behavior associated with reckless and impulsive decisions and actions linked to increased risk of unwanted consequences like injuries, violence, substance abuse, unwelcome pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. Neuroscience research has shown that the brain of young adults that get involved in risky behavior is in some ways comparable to the brain of adolescents, who still have not reached peak brain maturity. In other words, the brain of young offenders show a "lag" in brain maturity for their developmental stage when compared to the same age group that do not show risky behavior. 

The emotional circuitry in the brain also usually develops and matures earlier than the circuitry responsible for decision-making and self-control. The latter keeps developing even after adolescence, sometimes extending beyond the age of 18. Similar research has led to scientists calling for changes in the way juveniles are incarcerated. For example, BJ Casey, a neuroscience professor at Yale University, has been an advocate for the protection of young adults that show risky behavior. Casey wondered whether it made sense to set the age of majority in the United States as 18, when young boys like Kalief (aged 16 at the time of conviction) are tried and punished as adults. Is there a predefined age when adolescents become adults? Casey believes that research into brain development of young adults and risky behavior during this developmental stage will aid policymakers and justice officials to find better ways to treat young offenders, while ensuring healthy brain development, reduction in crime rates, and public safety. Neuroscience for health, and neuroscience for society. 

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Another example, where neuroscience should inform the justice system is with solitary confinement and the psychological damage it causes. In the Unites States alone, around 80,000 individuals spend days, months, sometimes even years in solitary confinement, like Robert King, who spent nearly three decades in solitary confinement. While solitary confinement has long been used in prisons as punishment and to control and "correct" for aberrant behavior, nowadays its efficacy and long-term effects are being questioned. Many individuals who have experienced such confinement have suffered the consequences of isolation, making it difficult for them to re-integrate into society. Encouraging discussion on similar endeavors is one step in highlighting the importance of such research. But taking action on this matter, is what some, like Jules Lobel – a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law – spent years trying to achieve. He has dedicated his time to argue a case in the criminal justice system to prove the detrimental effects of solitary confinement, as a cruel punishment, and fight for better treatment for prisoners

Nonetheless, it's worth noting that some scholars have been accused of making use of neuroscience findings to fit certain political and judicial agendas. One case in particular includes criticism directed at the American Psychology Association (APA)'s "inconsistent" or "flip-flop" position on adolescent maturity. The APA argued that adolescents had the required maturity to make informed decisions about abortion, but then went on to argue that adolescents are less mature than adults and hence have reduced accountability when it concerns criminal acts. In both scenarios, the APA backed its arguments with scientific research in support of their stance. Laurens Steinberg – a professor at Temple University – refers to this as "jump[ing] on the bandwagon in a heartbeat", whenever the science supports ones position. Steinberg, an advocate of making use of neuroscience to inform polices, even went on to warn of the uses of neuroscience for policy-making in certain cases, arguing that the tools (such as fMRI for example) being used remain 'imperfect' in order to draw generalized conclusions and policy drafts. Other scholars have written specific sets of guidelines required for the use of neuroscience technologies in a correct and efficient manner outside the lab, taking into considerations matters of an individual’s right to privacy, and both the promise and pitfalls of neuroscience. 

Moving forward, it is important that more neuroscientists take similar initiatives by communicating their findings to the general public, especially directed towards policymakers and politicians. Neuroscience-informed policies can bring about huge changes to our society. We must ensure that neuroscientific findings are used to shed light on current malpractices and injustices, to assure that the necessary actions are taken to ensure that all individuals undergo healthy brain development, and to avoid sweeping people wholesale into prisons to rot for petty offenses. 

Two years after Kalief was released, he took his own life. Kalief's family did not have the money to bail him, but if they did, Kalief might still be here. He'd be alive. "Healthy psychological brain development is not a privilege for the elite", says professor BJ Casey "but is a right for all". 

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Katherine Bassil is a Doctoral Fellow at the School of Mental Heath and Neurosciences, at Maastricht University, The Netherlands. She is currently working on a NWO-funded project “Investigating Epigenetic Mechanisms underlying PTSD Susceptibility in a Dutch Military Cohort". Additionally, her research focuses on the ethical implications of biomarkers for PTSD susceptibility and resilience, and on the use of human neural tissue as a model for brain disorders. Katherine is a frequent contributor to Nature magazine, Massive Science, the Observant newspaper and other. She is also an editorial assistant in Neuroethics Canada, a member of the Student-Postdoc Committee of the International Neuroethics Society (INS) and the founder/host of the neuroethics podcast: Neuroethics Today. She hopes that one day she’ll be able to bridge the fields of neuroscience and neuroethics, and inspire others to see the importance of such an effort.


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Bassil, K. (2020). Neuroscience for policy, Neuroscience for Society. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2020/05/neuroscience-for-policy-neuroscience.html

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