Articles & Chapters

Document Type


Publication Date



This paper addresses a remarkably-underconsidered topic: the potential impact of scientific discoveries and an increased understanding of the biology of human behavior on sentencing decisions in the criminal justice system, specifically, the way that sentencing has the capacity to rely on scientific evidence (such as brain imaging) as a mitigating factor (or perhaps, in the mind of some, as an aggravating factor) in determining punishment.

Such a new method of evaluating criminality, we argue, can be beneficial not only for the defendant, but also for the attorneys and judge involved in the case. If used properly, it may help to provide a more truly objective set of factors that contribute to an individual’s particular offending patterns, rather than continuing reliance on sentencing schemes that are swayed by societal bias and prejudice. However, it can become problematic if a legal system relies too heavily on untested theories, and even more problematic in cases in which science does not support legal conclusions. Scientific discovery moves faster than the law, and it is critical to make sure that the legal system is given an opportunity to catch up, rather than risk allowing “junk science” to influence how a defendant is treated.

In this paper, we first examine criminal sentencing procedures, and discuss how a criminological view of a defendant’s offending behavior can work to mitigate harshly inappropriate sentences; in this context, we consider how Federal Sentencing Guidelines cases consider the significance of mental disability in sentencing decisions, especially in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Booker. Then we review recent work on the biological bases of certain criminal behaviors and how it can be captured through brain imaging. Next, we consider how the use of such evidence continues to expand in the criminal trial process. Following this, we look at how the school of therapeutic jurisprudence can better inform how the legal system incorporates such evidence. Finally, we offer our recommendations for ensuring that scientific evidence is introduced appropriately in the legal system.