Applying neuroscience to social policy and the law

This programme of research examines the application of biological and neurosciences to law and social policy. Recent advances in these sciences pose considerable challenges to pre-existing evidence and established wisdoms, and therefore the framework upon which law and social policy is based. In particular, emerging understandings of neuromaturation offer explanations regarding patterns of offending amongst young adults and those with neurodevelopmental disorders, with clear implications for policy and practice within the criminal justice system. 

Neurodisability, criminality and criminalisation

It is increasingly apparent that neurodevelopmental difficulties are both a direct and indirect influence upon a young person's offending behaviour. For example, executive function deficits contribute to difficulties including sustaining attention and concentration, planning and forming goals, abstract reasdoning and inhibiting impulsive behaviours. In addition, neurodisability is associated with secondary risk factors such as poor educational attendance and attainment. Understanding the role of such factors can inform preventative interventions.

Studies in various countries repeatedly evidence a high incidence of neurodevelopmental disorders amoungst offending populations, particularly those in custodial institutions. Despite this recognition, assessment and screening of particular neurodevelopmental disorders and associated needs remains insufficient. Where conditions are identified, there is often a lack of responsive, specialist intervention within the criminal justice system. Furthermore, legal processes are in danger of criminalizing, rather than supporting, those with neurodisability. Biological and neurosciences therefore have the potential to inform practices better able to meet the needs of this vulnerable population.

Neuromaturation and young adult offending

Recent examination of physiological brain development suggests that processes of neuromaturation continue into early adulthood such that the human brain is not fully 'mature' until the early to mid-twenties. This suggests that young adulthood is a distinct neurodevelopmental phase, with many young adults akin to adolescents in regards to key cognitive and executive functions.

This offers a number of implications and dilemmas for the operation of the criminal justice system. Understanding neuromaturation as a continuing process throughout adolescence and early adulthood suggests that the age of 18 is an arbitrary cut-off point for immediately treating young adults with the full force of the criminal justice system. Instead, recognition of the specific processes of development occurring for this age group, suggests the need for an approach to intervening with young adults who offend that is more akin to the approaches utilized in working with young people. Consideration must also be given to how improved understandings of processes of neuromaturation might lead to more effective means to support desistence and rehabilitation.




Dr Nathan Hughes

Dr Nathan Hughes is currently Marie Curie Research Fellow at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, Melbourne, Australia, funded by the European Union.