Neuroscience and the law meet in new dual-degree program

This is a bronze statute of lady justice holding a sword and justice scale.
Justice for Juveniles?

As scientists continue to rapidly expand our knowledge of brain activity, neuroscience is transforming the role of mental activity in the courtroom.

In regard to juvenile defenders, for example, a consensus has formed among neuroscientists in recent years that the brain isn’t fully developed until it is in its mid-20s. This knowledge has created a backlash against the criminal justice system’s punitive measures against juvenile offenders, leading the U.S. Supreme Court to eliminate the death penalty and lifetime sentences for non-capitol crimes for these individuals.

The University of Wisconsin is looking to capitalize on this trend. This past June, the school announced the creation of a first-of-its-kind dual degree program for students looking to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience and a law degree, beginning in fall 2012. The highly challenging program will typically enroll one to two students per year and will take seven years on average to complete.

“There’s a huge amount of activity at the nexus between neuroscience and the law in this country,” said UW neuroscientist Ronald Kalil in an article from “What neuroscience is revealing (about) how we behave and how our brains are wired and structured is causing our common law system to have to revisit many of its assumptions about what to do when people violate the law.”

By training lawyers in neuroscience, many disability advocates hope the intersection of these two fields will help lawyers and judges understand how mental disabilities force certain individual to take involuntary actions. The hope is that this knowledge could create a new consensus on everything from standards of competence to the role of personal responsibility, and create a movement to overhaul America’s criminal justice system from a crime-and-punishment model to a rehabilitation model.

Disability Rights Wisconsin attorney Kit Kerschensteiner said that increased knowledge of neuroscience could greatly advance the ability of lawyers to convince juries of the role that mental disabilities plays in their clients’ actions. For example, many lawyers tend to to label their clients with a single diagnosis, which stigmatizes them in front of the jury.

“To just stick with a diagnosis, whether it’s fetal alcohol syndrome, manic depression, bipolar, that isn’t enough … If you don’t really grasp it in-depth and you’re trying to pass it along to a jury, that will impact their ability to get it,” she said. “Bottom line, it comes down to the jury’s opinion.”

Disability Rights Wisconsin is is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.

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