Neuroscience and the juvenile legislation

Scientific evidence suggests that the parts of the brain responsible for impulse control, decision-making, judgment and emotions, and crucial when fixing culpability in case of juvenile delinquency, keep developing into the twenties.

Updated - March 24, 2016 12:13 pm IST

Published - December 27, 2015 12:52 am IST

Earlier this week, the Rajya Sabha cleared the Juvenile Justice (Amendment) Bill that allows juveniles between ages 16 and 18 years who are charged with heinous offences to be tried as adults.

Neuroscience was conspicuously absent from this debate. Globally, juvenile justice policies are increasingly informed by developments in brain science that probe questions of culpability and “blameworthiness” of adolescent offenders. “Capacities relevant to criminal responsibility are still developing when you’re 16 or 17 years old,” psychologist Laurence Steinberg of the American Psychological Association had said while supporting Christopher Simmons, who, as an adolescent, had been convicted of murder — a case that became a landmark judgment in forensic psychiatry, and relied on neuroscience while convicting the juvenile offender.

Much like the juvenile involved in the December 16, 2012 gang rape in New Delhi, Simmons was 17 years old in 1993 when he robbed a woman, tied her up with electrical cable and duct tape, and tossed her over a bridge. When the case went to trial, he was convicted and sentenced to death by a Missouri court in 1994. By 2004, the Simmons case had worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and a year later, in a landmark decision, the court said that it was unconstitutional to impose capital punishment for crimes committed under the age of 18. The decision relied on neurobiology, developments in brain research to define the “age of understanding”. So, what does science have to say about the Indian government’s decision to allow 16-18 year olds to be tried and sentenced as adults? To put it simply — science does not back the decision.

Age of understanding As per India’s Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act of 2000, the age of understanding is fixed at 18 years. And so, legally, any individual beyond that age could be held fully responsible for his actions. However, neuro-scientific developments in the past decade prove that brain development continues till the person is well into his twenties.

In 2007, a study conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), U.S., scanned the brains of nearly 1,000 healthy children between ages 3 and 18. Child and adolescent psychiatrist Jay Giedd, who conducted the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans and followed the actual physical changes in the adolescent brain, believes that brain maturation peaks around the age of 25. In a 2005 paper on “Adolescence, Brain Development and Legal Culpability”, Dr. Giedd was quoted as saying, “Part of the brain that is helping organisation, planning and strategising is not done being built yet… It’s sort of unfair to expect [adolescents] to have adult levels of organisational skills or decision-making before their brain is finished being built.”

According to available neuro-scientific data, the frontal lobe, especially the prefrontal cortex, is among the last parts of the brain to fully mature. The frontal lobes are responsible for impulse control, in charge of decision-making, judgment and emotions — and therefore crucial when fixing “culpability” in the case of juvenile delinquency. Further, we now know conclusively that teenagers tend to be impulsive and prone to mood swings because the limbic system — which processes emotions — is still developing.

Preeti Jacob, assistant professor, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience, Bengaluru, says there is no valid, magic age which can work as a marker to define individuals as juveniles or adults. “Neuroscience has shown that the brain continues to develop well into the third decade of life. The 18 years cut-off is in itself an arbitrary number. Lowering this age further does not have its basis in current science,” she says.

According to experts, adolescents get involved in risk-seeking behaviour without thinking of long-term consequences, which leads them to actually overstate rewards without fully evaluating the risks. This is because the level of dopamine production changes during adolescence. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter — a chemical produced by the brain that helps link actions to rewards and/or punishments.

In defence of leniency Sumantra Chattarji is a professor of neurobiology at National Centre for Biological Sciences and head of the Centre for Brain Development and Repair at The Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, in Bengaluru. His work has established that under conditions of chronic and severe stress in rats, the prefrontal cortex can shrink by up to 40 per cent resulting in brain cells in this area losing their capacity to process information properly. The hippocampus, which is crucial for forming memories of daily facts and events, is also damaged in a similar fashion.

Thus, the parts of the brain that are crucial for processing information about specific events, and making careful decisions based on them — such as applying the brakes on high-risk behaviour — are severely compromised. On the other hand, the same stress pushes the amygdala, the emotional hub of the brain that is involved in fear, anxiety and aggression, in the opposite direction by making its neurons grow bigger and stronger. Strikingly, MRI imaging shows that similar changes take place in the brains of individuals suffering from stress disorders.

“What this means is that a stressed and damaged brain may lose its ability to control impulsive and risk-seeking behaviour because of a lack of balance between the prefrontal cortex and brain areas it is supposed to control. The ability to remember and reason is also curtailed,” says Dr. Chattarji.

This may be relevant in light of reports that a significant proportion of juveniles committing crimes in India come from economically and socially deprived backgrounds.

In the Indian context, Dr. Rajat Mitra, clinical psychologist and director of Swanchetan — a non-governmental organistaion based in New Delhi providing support to juvenile delinquents among others — says that “complete rehabilitation is very rare”. “It is almost next to nil. Rehabilitation is a well-defined scientific process. The idea is to help the convict gain back his original psychological, physical and social capacity which is impaired as a result of the crime committed,” he says.

Juveniles in conflict with the law are more capable of change given the fact that their brains are still learning. Honest efforts made towards rehabilitation — including visits by a mental health professional three-four times a month — will have a significant positive impact on them. Unfortunately, there is no psychiatric screening in Indian prisons. No mental health professional has met the juvenile convicted in the gang-rape case yet; neither when he was in a reform home for three years nor after release. He was given a one-time financial grant of Rs.10,000 and a sewing machine because the rehabilitation manual says that. “That’s no way to look at rehabilitation,” says Dr. Mitra.

(with inputs from Afshan Yasmeen)

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