Neurolaw Study Reveals How Politics Affects Criminal Justice Reform

February 25, 2015

A forthcoming study co-authored by Professor Francis Shen finds that Republicans and Independents are more likely to disapprove of neuroscience-based legal reforms if those reforms are seen as being too lenient on criminal defendants. Given the growing influence of the field of “neurolaw”—which integrates neuroscience into the legal system in a variety of ways—the finding is likely to have far-reaching implications.

The study, “Red States, Blue States, and Brain States: Issue Framing, Partisanship, and the Future of Neurolaw in the United States,” will be published in the March 2015 volume of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Shen is the article’s lead author; his co-author is Dr. Dena Gromet of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Shen points out that in recent years, American courts (including the Supreme Court) and legislatures have increasingly relied on brain science in making judicial rulings and writing statutes. Future advancements in neuroscience research might allow criminal law to better identify recidivists; tort law to better differentiate between those in real pain and those who are faking; insurance law to more accurately and adequately compensate those with mental illness; and end-of-life law to more ethically treat patients who might be able to communicate only through their thoughts.

However, Shen cautions, “if neuroscience is going to transform law and policy, it must be in accord with basic tenets held by the American electorate. At present, neuroscience remains above partisan politics. But our study suggests that could change.”

In a telephone poll, Shen and Gromet asked 1,000 Americans how they felt about neurolaw in general. Of this representative sampling, 9% strongly disapproved, 9% strongly approved, 40% were undecided, and the rest were split between approval and disapproval. In this baseline measure, there were no significant differences between Republicans and Democrats.

The research next tested how responses changed when neurolaw was framed as (a) an aid to prosecutors seeking harsher sentences for criminal defendants and (b) an aid to defendants seeking lighter sentences. This is where responses began to differ politically. Significantly greater numbers of Republicans and Independents disapproved of using neuroscience in law if that use would benefit defendants. Democrats, however, supported neurolaw equally whether its use was framed as helpful to the prosecution or the defense. This finding is consistent with previous research demonstrating differing reactions to scientific advances based on individuals’ political or cultural leanings.

Shen says the study makes it clear that neuroscience is not yet a polarizing political issue. To keep it that way, he suggests, “we must pay careful attention to the ways in which neuroscience and its application to the legal system are presented to the public.”

Additional information about related research is available at Professor Shen’s Web site.

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