Insights into Editorial: Neuroscience and the Juvenile Legislation
28 December 2015
The Rajya Sabha, last week, 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. The popular outcry to reduce the age of criminal responsibility to 16 years had become louder post the ‘Nirbhaya’ case. Noticeably, Neuroscience was absent from this debate. Hence, many scientists, especially neurologists, have not welcomed the decision.
What is Neuroscience?
Neuroscience is the study of how the nervous system develops, its structure, and what it does. Neuroscientists focus on the brain and its impact on behavior and cognitive functions. Not only is neuroscience concerned with the normal functioning of the nervous system, but also what happens to the nervous system when people have neurological, psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders.
Neuroscience and Criminal Justice:
Globally, juvenile justice policies are increasingly informed by developments in brain science that probe questions of culpability and blameworthiness of adolescent offenders.
- According to neurologists, “Capacities relevant to criminal responsibility are still developing when a person is 16 or 17 years old.” Further, neuro-scientific developments in the past decade prove that brain development continues till the person is well into his twenties.
- A study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) also reveals that brain maturation peaks around the age of 25.
- But, 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.
Why neurologists are against the recent Juvenile Bill?
According to them, “Part of the brain that is helping organisation, planning and strategising is still underdeveloped at the age 16.” Hence, they argue, 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.
- Recent studies have also concluded that teenagers tend to be impulsive and prone to mood swings because the limbic system — which processes emotions — is still developing.
- 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.
- Moreover, 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. And lowering this age further does not have its basis in current science.
Hence, according to them, allowing juveniles between ages 16 and 18 years who are charged with heinous offences to be tried as adults is a bad idea and has no scientific backing.
Socio-Economic Profile of Juveniles:
Many reports have revealed that a significant proportion of juveniles committing crimes in India come from economically and socially deprived backgrounds. More than 50% of the total juveniles apprehended has either not gone to school at all, or have dropped out after primary level; and more than 75% of them belong to families with an annual income less than Rs.50000.
Some studies show that such backgrounds increase the stress level in the juveniles.
What happens if the stress level is increased?
Under conditions of chronic and severe stress, the prefrontal cortex can shrink by up to 40% 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 is crucial for processing information about specific events, and making careful decisions based on them 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. MRI imaging also shows that similar changes take place in the brains of individuals suffering from stress disorders.
- This means 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.
Can Juveniles in conflict with the law be reformed?
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.
What needs to be done?
- Regular psychiatric screening in prisons.
- Complete rehabilitation. 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.
Juveniles are more susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure, are less likely to focus on future outcomes, are less risk-averse than adults, have poor impulse control, and evaluate risks and benefits differently all of which pre-dispose them to make poor decisions. The very age factor that makes them susceptible for negative influences makes their possibility for reforms as well. It is an often quoted argument that the children of present has access to information of all sorts, and know the consequences of their actions. However, what is to be noted is that information is no proof of maturity. Similarly, the brutality of a juvenile is no indicator that they cannot be reformed as responsible citizens of the nation.