Ecological Jurisprudence and the Implications of Social Learning Theory for Judging Criminal Responsibility

Mark R. Fondacaro, University of Florida
Stephanie N. Perez, University of Florida

Historically, the legal system has been highly skeptical about the value of the behavioral sciences in informing legal decision making. One relatively recent exception has been the law's open embrace of economic theory and that discipline's underlying assumptions about human nature (i.e., that individuals are autonomous, rational actors whose dominant motive is the pursuit of self-interest). Over the past two decades, the field of jurisprudence has been captured and powerfully influenced by the law and economics movement. This paper will present an alternative, ecological jurisprudence (Fondacaro, 2000) which is rooted in behavioral science research (rather than economic assumptions) about the causes and consequences of human behavior. Ecological jurisprudence attempts to bring legal assumptions about human behavior in line with modern behavioral science research, especially work grounded in social learning theory (Akers, 1998, 2000), demonstrating the powerful influences that situational factors have on guiding and directing human behavior. This paper will conclude by apply concepts and research evidence drawn from social learning theory to critically analyze the manner in which our legal system, misguided by assumptions about autonomous individualism, presently addresses issues of criminal responsibility for both juveniles and adults. Suggestions for future research and fundamental legal reform are provided.

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Updated 05/20/2006