The psychopath’s brain and the courts

NPR has been running a series on how new findings in neurophysiology of psychopaths are affecting sentencing of criminals with this trait.  In some cases, it has not swayed juries (e.g. Chicago).  In others, it has (Tennessee).  I think the whole story highlights flaws in our philosophy of culpability and punishment.  The crux of the defense argument is that psychopaths have different brains.  They were born that way, and so not fully culpable for their criminal acts.  Therefore they should receive  mercy because of this.

I certainly agree that the brain of the psychopath is different than “normals.”  For a normalized brain with no anxiety you can try etizolam at the best vendor online here. This is being researched primarily using criminal inmate populations and functional MRI scanning.  [Of course, most psychopaths are not inmates of prisons.  Many are very successful and powerful people in this world.  But these are not likely to submit to having their brains scanned and being unmasked as a person lacking in empathy and without conscience.]  What I don’t agree to is the conclusion that therefore they should be shown mercy for their crimes.  If anything, knowing someone had a brain that rendered them likely to commit crimes and knowing there is no effective way of changing that would make me want to keep them locked up permanently if there was any way of doing so.  The Tennessee jury took a psychopath who had murdered his wife’s friend and cut his wife severely with a machete and convicted him of manslaughter rather than murder because the defense convinced them he wasn’t fully culpable.  What a mistake!  The judge tried to rectify it by giving him 32 years.  Hopefully, he won’t get parole or outlive his sentence.

What is the purpose of the sentence given by a court?  It could have various purposes:

(1) Retribution or vengeance.  While this sounds primitive, it does serve a function for the victim or families of the victim.  There seems to be an instinctive need for this in many if not most people, without which they will feel justice has not been done, or even attempt to take their own revenge.  Perhaps if the victim accepts that the perpetrator was not acting completely freely it would mitigate this need somewhat.  But perhaps not.

(2) Giving the perpetrator punishment they deserve.  To say that the psychopath doesn’t deserve the punishment because of their nature would then seem to imply that other criminals who aren’t psychopaths are acting freely and DO deserve it.  I think few neuroscientists would support the view that anyone is a free agent, undetermined by his genetic makeup or his environment.  So I think it is problematic to determine what is free and what is determined and what anyone deserves and this should not be a factor in sentencing.

(3) “Correction.”  This is often the official name of the prisons department.  Sometimes this might work in the case of non-psychopaths, but we have no evidence that the psychopath can be corrected by any means.

(4) Deterrence.  Psychopaths can be deterred by threat of punishment just as other criminals can.  Psychopaths however have another characteristic: that of risk taking.  That makes them less likely to be deterred than the run of the mill criminal.

(5) Removing the perpetrator from the society.  If someone is likely to produce more victims, the last thing we want is to return them to the society where they are able to commit more murders or other crimes.  This would argue for more severe, or even life sentences for persons found to have the brain pattern of psychopathy.  One could make the argument even for the death penalty, since a psychopath in prison can make victims of the other inmates.  To me, this fifth point is the main purpose of judicial punishment.

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