“Neurolaw”: The Role of Neuroscience in Sentencing

On March 20, 1981, John W. Hinckley, Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan and three others, and the following year, the jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity largely because of the presentation of scientific evidence during trial. During trial, Hinckley’s defense team introduced a computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan that suggested he had an atrophied brain, which is a common feature among those with schizophrenia. While the CAT scan did not prove that Hinckley had schizophrenia, it was enough to convince the jury to find Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity. Nearly 41 years later, the incorporation of neuroscience into law, known as “neurolaw”, has dramatically expanded, particularly within the courtroom.   

Currently, neuroscience is used in the courtroom through several methods, such as presenting medical history, brain scans, and neurophysiological tests at trial. When medical history is presented at trial, judges are required to consider its information when reaching a verdict. Given that approximately 25% of defendants suffer from a mental illness, this is especially relevant when determining a defendant’s competency to stand trial. A second example is through brain scans, which can help determine correlations between activity in particular brain regions and human behavior. Lastly, neurophysiological tests are a current way to assess a defendant’s mental health by evaluating whether they had the requisite mental state to be held responsible for a crime.  

Generally, mentally ill defendants are sentenced to jail or a psychiatric hospital. If a defendant is found guilty but mentally ill, they are typically placed in a mental hospital and treated for their illness, rather than imprisoned. Sometimes, the defendant is neglected mental health treatment and placed in a jail. If a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity, oftentimes they are placed in a psychiatric hospital. While found not guilty, this verdict does not mean that the defendant is free to return to society. Incarceration without treatment has been linked to worsening a defendant’s mental health. In a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, defendants were asked about their mental health 30 days before being incarcerated; 14% of those surveyed said they were having severe psychological distress. This rate doubled to 26% when defendants were asked about their mental distress while in jail. In jail, individuals face isolation and demoralization, which is not productive to those suffering from mental health issues. If these individuals are released after incarceration, they are more likely to reoffend. In contrast, individuals that received treatments for their illness were less likely to reoffend when released. For these reasons, neurolaw can aid in giving mentally ill individuals the proper treatment and punishment.

There are several advantages to expanding the field of neurolaw, including the actual treatment for mentally ill offenders, the use of risk prediction for crime prevention, and early inmate release. Using neuroscience in criminal cases would highlight treatment needs for mentally ill offenders, giving them a chance at recovery and management rather than just being sentenced to jail time. Risk prediction and assessment in neurocriminology can be used for prevention of future crimes and prediction of the offender’s likelihood to reoffend. Neuroscience can be used to help predict and therefore prevent crimes before they occur. This use of risk assessment could be integrated into prisons and mental health hospitals and act as a tool to release those offenders who are not considered a threat. 

Often times, mental history is overlooked, and defendants are punished without a chance of rehabilitation. When these offenders are released back into society, their chances of recidivism are even higher. Neuroscience methods, specifically the use of medical history in the courtroom, would allow judges and juries to understand the scope of a defendant’s mental history, allowing them to make more informed decisions about where to place a defendant if determined guilty. Ultimately, the merging of science and law provides diverse ways of thinking that can be used as an advantage to greatly improve the criminal justice system. While the use of neuroscience in the courtroom in determining sentencing has significantly expanded over the last few decades, there is still room for considerable expansion as technology continues to advance.

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