Does Science Still Matter at the Supreme Court?

Print More
supreme court

Authority of Law Statue, in front of Supreme Court building, Washington. Photo by Matt Wade via Flickr

Imagine having your entire life defined by the worst thing you did when you were a teenager. What if the decisions of your 15-year-old self now made it impossible for you to have a family, a career, or any life at all?

In the U.S. Supreme Court’s April decision on Jones v. Mississippi, the majority of justices made it much easier for teens who commit serious crimes to pay with the rest of their lives.

As neuroscientists and psychologists who research brain development and decision-making of teenagers, we know that this ruling goes against not only common sense but decades of research and science on the teenage brain. Hundreds of studies that investigate the brains and behaviors of teenagers make it clear: Teens are different from adults. To ignore this when sentencing them is wrong.

At the heart of the Court’s recent decision was a terrible murder committed by a Mississippi resident, Brett Jones, when he was 15 years old. The horrific nature of the crime is not under debate. What must be considered—what the science reminds us to examine—is the capacity of youth to change.

Imaging studies that explore the anatomy and inner workings of the teen brain tell us it is not done maturing. It processes emotions differently than the adult brain, especially in stressful contexts. Hallmarks of adult behavior, like planning ahead, controlling emotions in intense situations, weighing the possible consequences of an action before taking it, and delaying gratification are connected to this continued brain development.

An immature brain does not absolve teens of their bad decisions. But we also know that the brain develops significantly well into the mid-20s. This is particularly true during the teen years, when the brain grows new cells and makes new connections. Individuals gain new skills and change how they interact with others because of these neurobiological changes.

The teen brain is primed for learning, and teenagers are particularly receptive to intervention and rehabilitation.

Ignoring Science in Rush to Judge Teens

Prior to Jones v. Mississippi, the Supreme Court gave weight to such scientific evidence.

Research on the teen brain has informed multiple landmark decisions. Prior rulings considered life without parole to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment for the majority of youth, acknowledging their lesser culpability and capacity to change. The Court acknowledged the tendency for the young to age out of problematic behaviors that result from “transient immaturity.”

The Court decided that juveniles could only be sentenced to life without parole for murder. Even then, the sentencing judge was required to fully consider that children are different from adults and find the young person to be incapable of change.

Last month, however, the Court shifted on this in Jones v. Mississippi. While it still held that judges are required to consider youth as a mitigating factor, it opened the door for more youths’ lives to be cut short unnecessarily.

The brain and behavior can and do change over the course of development. Brett Jones’ own behavior speaks to his ability to change. Correctional officers at Jones’ prison testified about his rehabilitation and extraordinary record in prison. Even the victim’s wife agreed, underscoring that Jones, like other youth, is indeed redeemable and can work towards atoning for his heinous acts.

By allowing judges to ignore such considerations when sentencing a young person to die behind bars, the recent Supreme Court decision promises to further inequity. Race and geography will now become the prime factors in determining life without parole for youth.

Since 2012, Louisiana has sentenced 57 percent of eligible juvenile offenders to life without parole compared to fewer than 2 percent in Pennsylvania. Black and Brown youth are much more likely than white youth to be sentenced to die in prison.

Giving judges more discretion will make this worse, because people incorrectly view Black kids as older and more culpable.

With the Supreme Court actively disregarding the research, we must now rely upon state court judges to apply science when sentencing youth.

Today, over 25 states ban this type of sentence for young people. More states are considering similar legislation in upcoming sessions. They and Congress should be further empowered to pass legislation ensuring that no young people in the United States be sentenced to die behind bars.

The brain, especially the teen brain, changes and responds to new experiences.

Decades of cruel and unusual punishment through life without parole should not be their only new experience. We urge those who believe in common sense and science to ask their legislators to ban life without parole in youth sentencing.

Editor’s Note: This essay was written by a group of seven developmental scientists with expertise in psychology, neuroscience, and youth justice. See authors below.

Additional Reading: “Earning Freedom: A Tale of Redemption Behind Bars,” The Crime Report, May 28, 2021.

Jamie Hanson, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and a Research Scientist at the Learning Research & Development Center, was the lead writer.

The following also contributed: Alexandra Cohen a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Psychology at New York University; Erika Fountain, an Assistant Professor of Psychology and director of the Youth Justice Lab at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Emily Haney-Caron, an Assistant Professor of Psychology and director of the Youth Law and Psychology Lab at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Catherine Insel, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Shohamy Lab at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute; and Gail Rosenbaum, a staff scientist on the Behavioral Insights Team at Geisinger Health.

2 thoughts on “Does Science Still Matter at the Supreme Court?

  1. The “horrific nature of the crime” SHOULD be under debate. Brett was attacked by a mentally ill man in a rage and was defending himself. This got entirely lost from the start. Brett had an 8th grade education when he was interrogated alone in the police department at 11pm, exhausted, hungry, scared, injured, and in shock from fighting for his life. Imagine yourself (or your own child) in that situation without a parent or a lawyer or any friendly face whatsoever. All the “horrible” facts of the case were established while he was bombarded by numerous cops for hours on end telling him he needed to make a statement. A scared, injured, exhausted and shocked child coerced into talking to the cops thinking he was going to go home. He has not breathed a breath of free air since that night. I have been helping Brett with his appeals for 16 years and I know every inch of this case. It is a travesty of justice and a railroad job of two children (yes, the other child they held in detention for 8 months until she turned on her friend and said what they wanted her to say so she could go home)…. I have a room full of files and legal documents over the course of 16 years of appeals that tell the real story. … this could happen to anyone’s child. As adults, and parents, we know this is wrong. And wouldn’t want it for our own children. But tolerate it for others. If you want to know the real story, let me know. I have it all. [this post has been condensed for space and clarity]

  2. Keep fighting, Pamela; I respect what you are doing!

    It is a shame whenever people, especially our judges and reviewing courts, ignore science.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *