Our laws have not kept up with new discoveries in neuroscience, meaning that a jury could declare someone guilty when a crime isn’t necessarily his (or her) fault. How should insights about the brain affect the course of a criminal trial, from the arguments in a courtroom to the issuing of a sentence?

Neuroscientists are now exploring how advances in neuroscience are both challenging and assisting the judicial system. Researcher Martha Farah says, "The mere fact that brain processes give rise to the behavior isn’t enough to excuse it, but the law does recognize some psychological conditions that diminish responsibility, and if neuroscience knows something about the neural processes underlying these conditions, it can aid in their diagnoses."

Among the critical issues that concern them is how new insights about brain maturity should be used when assessing teenage crimes. Researcher Jay Giedd says, "There currently is debate about whether adolescent brain maturity should be considered in sentencing for a crime or help determine what would be the proper deterrent for future adverse behavior. What’s difficult is applying this to individuals, as there are so many exceptions to the rule–there are many mature teens, and likewise immature people in their twenties and thirties."

Another issue is how a deeper understanding of addiction should affect sentencing. Researcher Alan Leshner says, "By combining the health approach to the criminal justice approach, I think you have a better chance of having effective and acceptable public policy. If you don’t deal with the illness or the brain part of drug addiction, you have much less chance of actually reducing the behavior you don’t like, whether it’s drug using or committing crimes."

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