On Monday, the Columbia University Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience hosted an event exploring how an interdisciplinary approach incorporating neuroscience and psychology can inform ways to rethink the justice system to create better outcomes for all parties involved.

When we think of seminars, we often think of a classroom setting and the exchange of ideas between different groups of people through which we grow by having our pre-existing ideas challenged. What we don’t usually think of is the courtroom, with its judges’ bench, witness stands, and jury boxes. But what if our courtrooms looked more like the seminars we had in our classrooms?

Given what we know neurologically about the impacts of level eye-contact and connection, the speakers at the event brought the phrase “seeing-eye-to-eye” to a literal level. Drawing from experiences from a seminar between incarcerated individuals and prosecutors, they challenged the physical barriers to meaningful connection between the court and the incarcerated population both within the courtroom and on a larger social level. The physical setup of the courtroom, Defense Attorney Lucy Lang pointed out, “is structured for people not to look each other in the eye, to not be equal, and for someone to be up high, dictating what happens,” challenging that we rethink the physical structure to be closer to that something that puts everyone on equal ground, such as that of a seminar. Graduates of the Inside Criminal Justice Seminar Jarrell Daniels and Denise Roman affirmed this disconnect in their reflections on the ways a punitive criminal justice system failed see them as people with potential to change, instead chalking the choices they made to survive, fit into, and deal with unideal circumstances to character rather than a product of larger social issues. Part of what made the seminar structure of Inside Criminal Justice so powerful for them, they shared, was having the chance to be treated as equal and being given the long-term support, connection, and education to make the choices they wanted but hadn’t previously been able to.

The reality of lost chances for incarcerated individuals was echoed throughout the event, with personal stories and deeper looks into societal structures pointing towards the lack of good choices offered to marginalized communities both before and after incarceration. From a natural sciences perspective, professor of psychology Geraldine Downey described how contrary to previous belief and the way the courts approach cases, studies have begun to see that people’s personalities and dispositions change towards being more patient and less neurotic well after the legal age of adulthood. She pointed to the resources college-aged students in college are provided to help further their development as proof that on some level, we understand what is needed for people to grow. Yet, she asks, how we can expect incarcerated individuals who have often always been marginalized and underserved to grow into the upstanding citizens we want them to be without any support, education, or belief in their potential to be better? Affirming this concern, Roman described the resentment and mistrust that was bred when, despite her desires to better, once out of prison, she found herself isolated with no guidance or support to help her be in a position where she could have good choices to choose from. Instead, a part of her development had frozen in incarceration, and when she was out of prison years later, her brain was still arrested in the same place as before her conviction.

Though audience members shared concerns that such an approach would allow people to lie their way to a shorter sentence by weaving sob stories, Assistant Defense Attorney Dafna Yoran argued that restorative justice is not easier than traditional justice as we know it. Where justice now acts by taking time away from the convicted, restorative justice requires the convicted to take on the personal responsibility to understand and acknowledge the pain they’ve caused others. While the criminal justice system now hinges on isolation as a punitive measure, restorative justice seeks to reform education to foster connections between marginalized individuals with their communities and law students with individuals of different backgrounds. Taking into account the high rates of mental illness among incarcerated individuals, restorative justice seeks an interdisciplinary approach that would address incarceration as the public health issue it has become and help marginalized individuals build a support system that guides them towards good choices. Where traditional justice creates an “them against us” mentality for the convicted, reformative justice seeks to reform the legal system into something that people can trust to serve the best interests of all members of society. 

Looking at our criminal justice system through the lens of science and the social sciences can help us find what it means to hold people accountable while accounting for their humanity. While it is just the beginning and will take time and work to get there, having a legal system that works with other fields to give individuals the resources to be able to make good choices would ultimately benefit not just incarcerated individuals, but also our society as a whole.

A recording of the event can be found here.

Justice via Bwog Archives