Turn ‘tough on crime’ into ‘effective on crime’

Today’s criminal justice system is at odds with emerging science

(Getty Images)

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the Colorado state Legislature passed sweeping bipartisan police reform. It took a mere 16 days to pass, yet it’s only the beginning.

Today’s criminal justice system is not only steeped in racial and gender bias, it’s at odds with emerging science. A growing number of long-held practices are now challenged by modern neuroscience, namely for ignoring the link between biology, behavior and environment. One concept, neuroplasticity, could reshape our thinking of the criminal justice system. 

Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the brain to change over time, the resulting biology driving behavior. While scientists once thought the brain was fixed by adulthood, modern neuroscience acknowledges that changes can occur throughout a lifetime. Though it may seem odd to reduce human behavior to a series of neural firings, understanding how behaviors are produced could help us improve the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. 

Through the lens of neuroscience, criminal justice arguably begins in utero, with prenatal brain development and early childhood being clear markers for long-term success. We see the most prominent neural changes through roughly ages 4-5, which help lay the foundations for morality, secure attachments and empathy — traits associated with law-abiding behaviors. These traits are further honed throughout our younger years, with safe and secure environments leading to the most desirable outcomes. At the same time, we’ve come to appreciate that environments burdened with prolonged stress (e.g. sleep deprivation, hunger, pain, trauma, addiction, poverty and lack of secure attachments) often shift neurological processes away from higher logical functioning and impede development. This may create an early proclivity for criminally associated traits such as impulsivity or even aggression. With the strongest neural development happening in early years, the more we can do early on to prevent this outcome the better.

It is therefore in our collective interest to strongly invest in policies that promote early childhood success as a measure of criminal prevention. Such policies include strengthening early childhood learning environments, securing affordable access to quality child care, eliminating child hunger and poverty, implementing paid family leave, adopting measures to stabilize family environments and more.

The nature of developing brains also suggests we may be incorrectly applying the law during adolescence and young adulthood. The prefrontal cortex, which helps manage executive-level functioning and self regulation, often isn’t fully developed until the mid-20s. This, too, can lead to poor management of emotions and increased behaviors associated with criminality. Furthermore, teenagers and young adults are still thought to be in a very active time of neuroplasticity compared to later in life. It’s a prime opportunity to provide developing brains with environments that will enrich moral and empathic capacities. Conversely, it is detrimental to growing brains to provide environments — such as jail cells and detention centers — ripe in stress, aggression, minimal stimulation, lack of sleep and lack of emotional stability. This should make us all think twice about incarcerating juveniles and young adults or, at the very least, prompt a strong reconsideration of the incarceration environment. 

But what of neuroplasticity after our 20s? In some studies, many non-psychopathic offenders demonstrate behaviors consistent with trauma as opposed to inherent incapacity for lawful behavior. Although change may take more time as we age, for many offenders rehabilitation is possible with the right environment. However, when sentenced to aggressive and stressful conditions such as prison, such traumas may be exacerbated, creating a recipe that serves to stall progress and perpetuate increased recidivism rates. In contrast, greater focus on supportive environments for nonviolent offenders, coupled with neurobiological treatments, therapies, and practices such as restorative justice (speculated to improve emotional networks) are more likely to yield positive outcomes. This remains true for neurological conditions such as drug addiction and mental health as well.

After decades of studying the living brain, the current criminal justice system has itself become suspect. While “tough on crime” may sound appealing, it’s demonstrably not always effective on crime. As products of our environment, at least in part, we rely on policymakers to develop systems that foster success. But when society fails to provide equitable access to our most basic needs, we may unintentionally beget unlawful behavior. At a time of unprecedented job loss, racial and gender disparities, wealth gaps, a global pandemic and general political unrest, we are a nation in trauma. Remaining “tough on crime” won’t fix it, and police reform is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

This year Colorado set the bar high. Next year we should raise it.