Our criminal justice system should heed the latest research on neuroscience and the law
Your report on the Royal Society paper Neuroscience and the Law says "scientific understanding of the brain has advanced in recent decades", with potentially momentous implications for the practice of law (Age of criminal responsibility is too low, say brain scientists, 14 December). It goes on to make the killer point that "the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, impulse control and cognitive control, is among the slowest parts of the brain to mature and is not fully developed until around the age of 20".
Other experts point to this maturation process finishing even later. A University of Birmingham report, commissioned by the Transition to Adulthood Alliance, has shown that "Development of those areas of the brain concerned with higher order cognitive processes and executive functions, including control of impulses and regulation and interpretation of emotions, continues into early adulthood; the human brain is not 'mature' until the early to mid-twenties."
While your article focuses largely on the implications of neuroscience for the age of criminal responsibility ? undoubtedly far too low at 10 ? the findings have equal importance for policy towards young adults, who are by and large treated as fully fledged adults from the moment they wake up on their 18th birthday. This was certainly the case in the sentencing following last summer's riots.
Handing down court of appeal judgments in which seven of the 10 appellants were under 25 years old, Lord Judge was clear that "none of these appeals involves children or young offenders (where different sentencing considerations arise) ? None of the offenders before us was 'mindless'. The actions were deliberate, and each knew exactly what he (and in one case, she) was doing."
Contrast that with the decision of the Sentencing Council earlier this year to introduce the concept of "maturity" into the sentencing process for the first time. Since June, judges and magistrates have been able to lessen the sentence severity if they judge the offender to "lack maturity" in a way that impacts on their responsibility.
Although no one would argue that someone's lack of maturity is an excuse for illegal behaviour, it is certainly a factor and should be accorded due weight in mitigation. The public support these measures: a recent poll found that 69% think emotional and psychological maturity should be taken into account for those accused of breaking the law.
The Royal Society adds further weight to this viewpoint, stating that neuroscience may be used to "suggest that the degree of responsibility of the defendant for their actions is mitigated in a manner which should be reflected by a reduced sentence". In Germany this is common practice: courts can choose to try young adults up to the age of 21 under juvenile law if the offender is immature or the circumstances of the offence are more typical of youth crime.
Our organisation has long argued that maturity, not just chronological age, should be recognised in the sentencing process. This latest report strengthens that argument.