Should neuroscience be given the authority to make a change in a legal sentence? Or should law and science be kept separate?
by Alice Alcaras
Should neuroscience be given the authority to make a change in a legal sentence? Or should law and science be kept separate? This is where the trilemma lies. We will explore the different points of view regarding neuroscience being used in courts of law and the consequences this would bring.
In Italy (2009), a woman was pleaded guilty of murdering her sister, setting fire to her corpse, and attempting to murder her parents. She was given a life sentence, until 2 years later, the legal judge decided to change her sentence to “only” 20 years after taking into consideration some new evidence from her genetics and brain scans. This is an example of a case where neuroscience has been used in legal courts.
Many studies have been conducted in neuroscience/neuropsychology about this subject, and the results show that there are different developments of brain areas that affect how we behave. For example, according to these studies, delayed development of the prefrontal cortex can lead to bad decision making, low emotion regulation, and higher impulsivity.
All in all, is it fair to use this type of evidence to decrease a life sentence?
Neuroscience should not be used in courts.
This side of the argument believes that even though there have been studies that show some brain evidence linked to behaviour, legal judges should not base their decisions on them.
Neuroscience has provided evidence on this matter, however, part of neuroscience is psychology, which is a big grey area. What this means is that in psychology, there is no right or wrong. Nothing is for certain—studies are in continuous development and it is a science that keeps evolving. Therefore, we cannot use the evidence to define what is “right”. There are many factors that need to be taken into consideration, and for these reasons, neuroscience should not be used to make legal judgments.
Neuroscience and law are also completely different subjects. Law bases itself on solid facts, while neuroscience is about interpretation of evidence with many variables. How can a judge possibly decide on a verdict based on two completely different views? Moreover, neuroscience has not yet found enough evidence to claim that theories of biological traits and behaviour are causally linked and not just associated. In other words, neuroscience can only give probabilities and law cannot base itself on chances and on the general population as it needs evidence about the individual standing in front of the court.
Neuroscience should be used in courts.
On the other hand, there is the argument that asks why someone should be punished if they are shown to have brain deficits or difficulties. Why should we punish an individual for a disability he or she has?
The idea is that if an individual is found to have abnormal behaviour and further research shows that he or she actually has brain impairments, then the sentence should be different from that of an individual who is completely healthy and has committed a crime entirely by free will. Here, the individual did not have free choice—he or she did not choose to have a disorder that made him act more violently. Therefore, as the judge in the previously stated case did, individuals should still be held partly responsible for their actions, but their impairments should be taken into consideration as well.
In addition, figuring out if a person has neurological problems can help treat them in a more suitable manner. Punishment may not be the best way; a long therapy might be more beneficial. Furthermore, recognising the impairments of the offender might help understanding the victim’s as well.
The middle stance.
Neuroscience should be taken into consideration when making decisions in courts. However, this does not mean that they should be the only thing the decision is based on. Law and psychology often treat the same topics, however, they are too different to result in a common answer. Neuroscience can use evidence to analyze a specific issue, which should be given to the judge and the jury to formulate their verdict. Some may think that psychological disorders or deficits cannot be blamed for someone’s behaviour, and the individual needs to take responsibility for their actions. And, the consequences can change based on the gravity of the problem and the criminal act.
A balance is what would be best. One solution for example could be having a psychologist in court so that the judges can have a professional view on the issue, without them having to make uniformed decisions. Another solution could be teaching lawyers neuroscience, so they will be able to make informed decisions; psychologists could also be taught law.. This way, the two different subjects could be met with a reciprocal understanding and could work better together in forming better conclusions.