Neuroscience entering the courtroom and affecting law is a multi-faceted issue. One of the most important aspects seems to be that making sweeping generalizations about people’s tendencies and personalities is easy to do, but potentially incorrect. For example, the issue of the frontal cortex not being fully developed in adolescents and therefore having a lower level of responsibility and maturity does not hold to be true for every adolescent. That being said, how is the law supposed to function if there are no boundaries set? And if there are boundaries set, how are they determined? In The Washington Post article, “5-4 Supreme Court Abolishes Juvenile Executions” by Charles Lane), this question is touched on by the Supreme Court case of Roper v. Simmons. The law was changed from the previous condition that 16-year-olds could be given capital punishment (the case Stanford v. Kentucky) to that only 18-year-olds and older can be given capital punishment now. The case demonstrates that the laws set can and should be questioned.
If a teenager really is less capable of making responsible decisions, then should this be reason to punish them less severely? Does this solve the problem and lessen crime rates? Because there is not enough information available yet about how to determine the exact maturity of every adolescent, rather than speculating if this decision is scientifically sound or not, it is important to ask how and why laws like this are created and amended. Is a person one day from his eighteenth birthday less capable of making decision than someone whose eighteenth birthday was one day before? This assertion is ludicrous, thus the lines of maturity and when to hold someone accountable blur.
Realistically, much of what determines the acceptability of a punishment involves societal standards and approval rather than actual success in lowering crime rates. The article mentions that “the United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death penalty” (at the time of this court case), and this fact affected opinions about whether or not this punishment is reasonable and appropriate for the crime. So the next question to ask is what are societal standards on responsibility and punishment based on? Neuroscience is working to answer these questions, but until it is discovered, I think punishments and laws should be amended according to the success they have in lowering crime, regardless of societal expectations or past conventional laws.