About Robert Kinscherff

Robert Kinscherff, PhD, JD is a clinical/forensic psychologist and attorney appointed for the 2015-2016 academic year as Senior Fellow in Law and Applied Neuroscience in a joint fellowship of the Petrie Flom Center (HLS) and the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior (Massachusetts General Hospital)

Humanizing Pain: Advocacy, Policy and Law on Abortion, Execution and Juvenile Life Without Parole

By Robert Kinscherff

I recently attended a presentation on Fetal Pain: An Update on the Science and Legal Implications, jointly sponsored by the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior (Massachusetts General Hospital) and the Petrie-Flom Center (Harvard Law School).  Presenters were Amanda Pustilnik, JD (University of Maryland School of Law) and Maureen Strafford, MD (Tufts University School of Medicine). Video of the event is available on the website, and I encourage everyone to watch the full discussion for themselves.

Doctor Strafford delivered a masterful overview of the trajectory of scientific perspective and research about children and pain.  Over the course of her career, the medical perspective has transformed from “children do not feel pain” to “children do not remember pain” to inquiry into “when and how children feel pain.” Strafford described the medical complexities of understanding the physical and subjective aspects of pain as well as the impossibility of confidently “pinpointing” the exact point in fetal development when a neonate experiences pain.

Professor Pustilnik gave an equally compelling review of law and legal language regarding abortion, particularly law that specifically references fetal pain as a reason for limiting abortion.   This served to frame a conversation about pain and suffering in the law and the ways in which law reflects normative considerations and provides rhetoric (viewed respectively by partisans as “compelling” or “inflammatory”) to political discourse. In this case, discourse about fetal pain both attracts attention and is intended to facilitate empathy for the neonate. Continue reading

Juvenile crime is down and high school graduation is up: Good news or distraction?

By Robert Kinscherff

At first glance it seems like unequivocal good news: Juvenile crime rates are at approximately the same levels as the early 1970’s and high school graduation rates have risen from 65 percent four years ago to 82 percent in 2013-2014.  But, a closer look suggests a different picture under the surface of this aggregate national data.

Overall rates of juvenile crime have diminished considerably since the high-water mark in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s but “hot spots” of violent crime by juveniles and young adults—especially gun violence—persistently burn in neighborhoods of large cities like Detroit, Chicago, Oakland, Cleveland, and Baltimore as well as in smaller cities like Flint (MI), New Haven (CT), Rockford (IL), Odessa (TX), and Springfield (MA), and in many rural areas with intractable high poverty rates and which have seen gang infiltration in recent years. Continue reading

Changes in seasons, changes for children: Developments at the intersection of behavioral science, developmental neuroscience, and juvenile justice

By Robert Kinscherff

It is fitting that I am writing this first blog of my time as Senior Fellow in Law and Applied Neuroscience as we transition through the change of seasons.  It is a privilege to have the time afforded by this joint Fellowship between Harvard Law School (Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics) and Massachusetts General Hospital (Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior) to focus upon the intersections of behavioral science, developmental neuroscience, and juvenile justice.  The autumnal change of seasons is a fitting metaphor for the slow but profound changes occurring in juvenile justice which have been spurred in large measure by emerging neuroscience increasingly describing the neurobiology of adolescence.  This neuroscience provides the biological complement to what developmental psychologists have well described and what parents have long known:  Children are different.

This emerging neuroscience has become a quiet but increasingly pervasive force in helping us understand why most delinquent youth desist with maturation—even adolescents who are chronically delinquent and violent.  It helps us understand why punitive “tough on teen crime” approaches born of fears in the 1990’s of the rise of violent teen “super-predators” actually compromises public safety over time—especially when youth are tried as adults and incarcerated with adults.  And, it helps us understand why mass detention and incarceration of youth—many of them for non-violent offenses—not only harms those youth but tends to increase their risks of continued misconduct and of later deep penetration into the adult criminal justice system. Continue reading