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College of Law conducts conference on adolescent brain, juvenile justice

May 09, 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court increasingly has used new neuroscience research to help decide major cases regarding the constitutionality of imposing the death penalty on juvenile murderers and of sentencing non-homicide juvenile offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Because neuroscience is playing a bigger role today than ever in the juvenile justice system, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University is hosting a national conference that brings together leading scientists and legal experts from around the country to discuss the issues.

The conference, “Adolescent brains and juvenile justice: new insights from neuroscience, genetics and addiction science,” will be from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., May 12, in the Sandra Day O’Connor U.S. Courthouse at 401 W. Washington St., Phoenix. The fourth in a series of biennial programs on neuroscience and the law presented by the law school’s Center for Law, Science & Innovation, the conference is free and open to the public. However, there is available seating only in an overflow room (visit for more information and to register).

“The turnout for this program is a testament to the public’s recognition of the importance of this science,” said the Honorable Roslyn O. Silver, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court, District of Arizona, and a major supporter of the conference. “Neuroscience and the law is the new frontier in the law as reflected in the many cases that have recently come before me involving the subject. It is also particularly revealing that the Supreme Court has taken account of the neuroscience discipline and relied on neuroscience studies in the resolution of two critical decisions involving juvenile justice.”

The conference is co-sponsored by the College of Law’s Diane Halle Center for Family Justice, the ASU Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics, and The Law and Neuroscience Project, supported by Vanderbilt Law School and the MacArthur Foundation. It received additional funding from the U.S. District Court, District of Arizona and the Steele Foundation.

The keynote address will be delivered by Robert Sapolsky, John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences, and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University. Sapolsky is a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow who lectures and writes often about issues related to biology and behavior.

The conference also will include three panels – “Frontiers of adolescent brain science,”  “Applying neuroscience in the courtroom,” and “Looking forward – neuroscience, genetics and the future of juvenile justice policy.” An eclectic mix of speakers, including law, psychology and social behavior professors, and state and federal experts in law enforcement and mental health, will present.

The conference has attracted a full-house audience of judges, attorneys, scientists, mental health and addiction specialists, policy-makers, scholars, social workers, educators and others.

Contrary to many other legal issues in which conflicting interests are directly juxtaposed, everyone agrees on the same bottom line with regard to juvenile justice, and the issue is how to get there, said law professor Gary Marchant, executive director of the Center for Law, Science & Innovation, who is seated on one panel and will moderate another.

“We want to prevent these kids from doing more harm to themselves and to others,” said Marchant, citing the January shooting deaths of six people in a Tucson supermarket parking lot, allegedly by a 22-year-old man, and the Columbine massacre by two high school students in 1999. “Juveniles are a substantial part of our criminal justice system, and there’s a general sentiment that the problem is getting worse, not better.

“This is creating a huge risk to society, ruining their potential for being productive citizens, and hurting a lot of people along the way,” Marchant said. “There’s the sense that we can and must do better, and there’s a lot of excitement, interest and potential in using emerging scientific knowledge about the adolescent brain to try to do better.”

Recent scientific findings may help transform the juvenile justice system by providing new evidence relevant to the culpability, deterrence and rehabilitation potential of young offenders, he said. In examining how new neuroscience data currently is being used, and could be used in the future, panelists will provide a balanced spectrum of scientific, legal and ethical perspectives.

For more information about the conference, contact Sandy Askland at or 480-965-2465.

Janie Magruder,