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



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.

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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.


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

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Laurence Steinberg.

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The author declares no competing financial interests.

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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.

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

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