The frontal cortex and the criminal justice system

Abstract

In recent decades, the general trend in the criminal justice system in the USA has been to narrow the range of insanity defences available, with an increasing dependence solely on the M'Naghten rule. This states that innocence by reason of insanity requires that the perpetrator could not understand the nature of their criminal act, or did not know that the act was wrong, by reason of a mental illness. In this essay, I question the appropriateness of this, in light of contemporary neuroscience. Specifically, I focus on the role of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) in cognition, emotional regulation, control of impulsive behaviour and moral reasoning. I review the consequences of PFC damage on these endpoints, the capacity for factors such as alcohol and stress to transiently impair PFC function, and the remarkably late development of the PFC (in which full myelination may not occur until early adulthood). I also consider how individual variation in PFC function and anatomy, within the normative range, covaries with some of these endpoints. This literature is reviewed because of its relevance to issues of criminal insanity; specifically, damage can produce an individual capable of differentiating right from wrong but who, nonetheless, is organically incapable of appropriately regulating their behaviour.