Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The influence of neuroscience on US Supreme Court decisions about adolescents' criminal culpability

Subjects

Abstract

In the past 8 years, the US Supreme Court has issued landmark opinions in three cases that involved the criminal culpability of juveniles. In the most recent case, in 2012, a ruling prohibited states from mandating life without parole for crimes committed by minors. In these cases, the Court drew on scientific studies of the adolescent brain in concluding that adolescents, by virtue of their inherent psychological and neurobiological immaturity, are not as responsible for their behaviour as adults. This article discusses the Court's rationale in these cases and the role of scientific evidence about adolescent brain development in its decisions. I conclude that the neuroscientific evidence was probably persuasive to the Court not because it revealed something new about the nature of adolescence but precisely because it aligned with common sense and behavioural science.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: The age–crime curve.
Figure 2: Age and risk-taking.
Figure 3: Sensation-seeking and impulse control.
Figure 4: The dual systems model.

References

  1. 1

    Elias, P. Many question life sentences for juveniles. USA Today [online], (18 Aug 2012).

  2. 2

    Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ____ (2012).

  3. 3

    Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

  4. 4

    Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. ____ (2010).

  5. 5

    Transcript of oral argument in Roper v. Simmons, S. Ct. (2004) (No. 03–633).

  6. 6

    American Psychological Association. Amicus curiae brief in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551. American Psychological Association [online], (2005).

  7. 7

    Stinneford, J. Rethinking proportionality under the cruel and unusual punishments clause. Virginia Law Rev. 97, 899–978 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988).

  9. 9

    Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002).

  10. 10

    Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989).

  11. 11

    Snyder, H. N. Arrest in the United States, 1990–2010. Bureau of Justice Statistics [online], (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Steinberg, L. A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Dev. Rev. 28, 78–106 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Harden, K. P. & Tucker-Drob, E. M. Individual differences in the development of sensation seeking and impulsivity during adolescence: further evidence for a dual systems model. Dev. Psychol. 47, 739–746 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Steinberg, L. & Scott, E. S. Less guilty by reason of adolescence: developmental immaturity, diminished responsibility, and the juvenile death penalty. Am. Psychol. 58, 1009–1018 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Steinberg, L. & Monahan, K. C. Age differences in resistance to peer influence. Dev. Psychol. 43, 1531–1543 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Gardner, M. & Steinberg, L. Peer influence on risk taking, risk preference, and risky decision making in adolescence and adulthood: an experimental study. Dev. Psychol. 41, 625–635 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Farrington, D. in Crime and Justice: an Annual Review of Research (eds Tonry, M. & Morris, N.) 189–217 (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986).

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Moffitt, T. E. Adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: a developmental taxonomy. Psychol. Rev. 100, 674–701 (1993).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Steinberg, L. Adolescent development and juvenile justice. Annu. Rev. Clin. Psychol. 5, 459–485 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Luciana, M. (ed.) Adolescent brain development: current themes and future directions. Brain Cogn. 72 (2010).

  21. 21

    Casey, B. J., Getz, S. & Galvan, A. The adolescent brain. Dev. Rev. 28, 62–77 (2008).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Schmithorst, V. J. & Yuan, W. White matter development during adolescence as shown by diffusion MRI. Brain Cogn. 72, 16–25 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Olesen, P. J., Nagy, Z., Westerberg, H. & Klingberg, T. Combined analysis of DTI and fMRI data reveals a joint maturation of white and grey matter in a fronto-parietal network. Brain Res. Cogn. Brain Res. 18, 48–57 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Vincent, J. L., Kahn, I., Snyder, A. Z., Raichle, M. E. & Buckner, R. L. Evidence for a frontoparietal control system revealed by intrinsic functional connectivity. J. Neurophysiol. 100, 3328–3342 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Liston, C. et al. Frontostriatal microstructure predicts individual differences in cognitive control. Cereb. Cortex 16, 553–560 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Dosenbach, N. U. et al. Prediction of individual brain maturity using fMRI. Science 329, 1358–1361 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Luna, B., Padmanabhan, A. & O'Hearn, K. What has fMRI told us about the development of cognitive control through adolescence? Brain Cogn. 72, 101–113 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Stevens, M. C., Kiehl, K. A., Pearlson, G. D. & Calhoun, V. D. Functional neural networks underlying response inhibition in adolescents and adults. Behav. Brain Res. 181, 12–22 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Galvan, A. et al. Earlier development of the accumbens relative to orbitofrontal cortex may underlie risk taking in adolescence. J. Neurosci. 26, 6885–6892 (2006).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Hare, T. A. et al. Biolgical substrates of emotional reactivity and regulation in adolescence during an emotional go-nogo task. Biol. Psychiatry 63, 927–934 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    Steinberg, L. A dual systems model of adolescent risk-taking. Dev. Psychobiol. 52, 216–224 (2010).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  32. 32

    Chein, J., Albert, D., O'Brien, L., Uckert, K. & Steinberg, L. Peers increase adolescent risk taking by enhancing activity in the brain's reward circuitry. Dev. Sci. 14, F1–F10 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33

    Casey, B. J. et al. The storm and stress of adolescence: insights from human imaging and mouse genetics. Dev. Psychobiol. 52, 225–235 (2010).

    CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  34. 34

    Burnett, S., Sebastian, C., Kadosh, K. & Blakemore, S.-J. The social brain in adolescence: evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging and behavioural studies. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 35, 1654–1664 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35

    Pfeifer, J. H. & Allen, N. B. Arrested development? Reconsidering dual-systems models of brain function in adolescence and disorders. Trends Cogn. Sci. 16, 322–329 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36

    Crone, E. A. & Dahl, R. E. Understanding adolescence as a period of social–affective engagement and goal flexibility. Nature Rev. Neurosci. 13, 636–650 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37

    Hodgson v. Minnesota, 497 U.S. 417 (1990).

  38. 38

    Weisberg, D. S., Keil, F. C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E. & Gray, J. R. The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 20, 470–477 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39

    Aspinwall, L. G., Brown, T. R. & Tabery, J. The double-edged sword: does biomechanism increase or decrease judges' sentencing of psychopaths? Science 337, 846–849 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40

    Steinberg, L. Should the science of adolescent brain development inform public policy? Issues Sci. Technol. Spring, 67–78 (2012).

  41. 41

    Kays, J. L., Hurley, R. A. & Taber, K. H. The dynamic brain: neuroplasticity and mental health. J. Clin. Neurosychiatry Clin. Neurosci. 24, 118–124 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42

    Shannon, B. J. et al. Premotor functional connectivity predicts impulsivity in juvenile offenders. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 11241–11245 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43

    Chase-Lansdale, P. L., Mott, F. L., Brooks-Gunn, J. & Phillips, D. A. Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth: a unique research opportunity. Dev. Psychol. 27, 918–931 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to B. J. Casey, J. Chein and E. Scott for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Laurence Steinberg.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The author declares no competing financial interests.

Related links

PowerPoint slides

Glossary

Amicus curiae brief

Literally, a brief submitted by a 'friend of the court'. It is a document filed by a person, group or organization that is not a party to the case but that seeks to influence the court's opinion.

Dissenting justice

One of the justices whose vote is not with the majority of the justices. A dissenting justice may write an opinion explaining the rationale behind his or her disagreement with the majority.

Majority opinion

A judicial opinion (in the United Kingdom, it is referred to as a 'judgement') agreed to by more than half of the members of the court, setting forth the court's decision and an explanation of the rationale behind it.

US Supreme Court

The highest court in the United States, which is composed of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight Associate Justices. It has ultimate jurisdiction over all federal courts and over all state court cases involving federal law.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Steinberg, L. The influence of neuroscience on US Supreme Court decisions about adolescents' criminal culpability. Nat Rev Neurosci 14, 513–518 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3509

Download citation

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing