If a criminal’s behavior has a biological basis, is that reason to reduce the sentence because defective genes or brain function leave the criminal with less self-control and ability to tell right from wrong? Or is it reason for a harsher sentence because the criminal likely will reoffend?
“In a nationwide sample of judges, we found that expert testimony concerning the biological causes of psychopathy significantly reduced sentencing of the psychopath” from almost 14 years to less than 13 years, says study coauthor James Tabery, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Utah.
However, the hypothetical psychopath in the study got a longer sentence than the average nine-year sentence judges usually impose for the same crime — aggravated battery — and there were state-to-state differences in whether judges reduced or increased the sentence when given information on the biological causes of psychopathy.
The study was conducted by Tabery; Lisa Aspinwall, a University of Utah associate professor of psychology; and Teneille Brown, an associate professor at the university’s S.J. Quinney College of Law.
The researchers say that so far as they know, their study — funded by a University of Utah grant to promote interdisciplinary research — is the first to examine the effect of the biological causes of criminal behavior on real judges’ reasoning during sentencing.
Biological Explanation of Psychopathy Helps Defendant
The anonymous online survey — distributed with the help of 19 of 50 state court administrators who were approached — involved 181 participating judges reading a scenario, based on a real Georgia case, about a psychopath convicted of aggravated battery for savagely beating a store clerk with a gun during a robbery attempt.
The judges then answered a series of questions, including whether they consider scientific evidence of psychopathy to be an aggravating or mitigating factor that would increase or decrease the sentence, respectively, and what sentence they would impose. They were told psychopathy is incurable and treatment isn’t now an option.
While psychopathy isn’t yet a formal diagnosis in the manual used by psychiatrists, it soon may be added as a category of antisocial personality disorder, Tabery says. The study cited an expert definition of psychopathy as “a clinical diagnosis defined by impulsivity; irresponsibility; shallow emotions; lack of empathy, guilt or remorse; pathological lying; manipulation; superficial charm; and the persistent violation of social norms and expectations.”
The researchers recruited 207 state trial court judges for the study. Six dropped out. Twenty others were excluded because they incorrectly identified the defendant’s diagnosis. That left 181 judges who correctly identified the defendant as a psychopath, including 164 who gave complete data on their sentencing decisions.
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