Thinking Aloud: Science Should Shape Sentencing

Apr. 8, 2015 by Darius

In perhaps the least surprising news of the day, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev was found guilty on all counts.  His defense never tried to deny his guilt, instead working to convince to jury to spare Tsarnaev the death penalty.  The jury will sentence Tsarnaev next week.

For someone like Tsarnaev, the death penalty really shouldn’t even be on the table.  Why?  His crimes are certainly reprehensible.  But Tsarnaev is only 21 years old, actually 19 years old at the time of the bombing.  Hard neuroscience has shown, repeatedly, that the human brain does not finish developing until approximately age 25.  The last part of the brain to develop is in the prefrontal cortex, which regulates, among other things, decision-making.  In other words, Tsarnaev and every other teen and young adult without a fully developed prefrontal cortex is biologically prone to subpar decision-making.  (Watch men under 25 doing stupid things on YouTube.)

Does that excuse the poor decision-making of teens and young adults, be they on YouTube, in a courtroom, or on a battlefield?  No.  But is it really appropriate to put someone to death for a crime committed during a time when he or she is biologically not yet fully in possession of his or her faculties?  If Tsarnaev is sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, he will serve that sentence.  It is unnecessary to take another life.

The Supreme Court cited neuroscience several years ago in its decision to prohibit minors from being sentenced to life imprisonment without any possibility of parole.  The same logic should apply to capital crimes committed by those under 25 (a far less arbitrary number than 18 when it comes to neural development).  For these criminals, a life in prison is punishment enough.

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2 Responses to Thinking Aloud: Science Should Shape Sentencing

  1. Executioner of Lille says:

    Sorry, but this is ridiculous. Whether the pre-frontal cortex is *fully* developed by age 19 or not, I’m pretty sure it’s progressed sufficiently to be able to grasp both the underlying morality and likely repercussions of IED’ing a marathon.

    • Herding Cats says:

      Sure, lock him up forever. But executing someone for crimes committed as a teenager is not very different than executing a retarded person, which the Supreme Court has ruled against on essentially neurological grounds.

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