Saturday, July 23, 2011

Applying Science of Biological Inequality to Criminal Justice

Along any axis that we use to measure human beings, we discover a wide-ranging distribution, whether in empathy, intelligence, impulse control, or aggression. People are not created equal. Although this variability is often imagined to be best swept under the rug, it is in fact the engine of evolution. In each generation, nature tries out as many varieties as it can produce, along all available dimensions.

Variation gives rise to lushly diverse societies—but it serves as a source of trouble for the legal system, which is largely built on the premise that humans are all equal before the law. This myth of human equality suggests that people are equally capable of controlling impulses, making decisions, and comprehending consequences. While admirable in spirit, the notion of neural equality is simply not true. _Atlantic_Brain_on_Trial_David_Eagleman_via_EvolvingEconomics

Under the modern regime of political correctness, it is forbidden to point out that we are all genetically different from each other. Each of us has different aptitudes and limitations. The criminal justice system is particularly resistant to the science of human biodiversity (HBD), for many reasons. But as science learns more about how biological and psychological differences between people inspire and drive criminal behaviours, we may eventually see more scientific and technological tools at every stage of the criminal justice system -- from crime investigation to trial to imprisonment and parole.
If you think genes don’t affect how people behave, consider this fact: if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes. You’re three times as likely to commit robbery, five times as likely to commit aggravated assault, eight times as likely to be arrested for murder, and 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offense. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes; 98.1 percent of death-row inmates do. These statistics alone indicate that we cannot presume that everyone is coming to the table equally equipped in terms of drives and behaviors. _Atlantic_BrainonTrial

Those statistics do not tell the entire story. A large number of perfectly law-abiding individuals are walking around with those "criminal genes" as part of their lawful genome. Most will never commit a serious crime. And likewise, there are a lot of "criminal genes" which have not yet been discovered, for good reason. Genes by themselves do not commit crimes. Instead it is particular combinations of genes (and gene control mechanisms) which when combined with particular individuals in particular environments, conspire to lead to criminal behaviours. Until scientists become sophisticated enough to understand the mind-boggling combinations of gene interaction and the myriad mechanisms of control of gene expression, it will be difficult to bring genomics and epigenomics to courtrooms.
When it comes to nature and nurture, the important point is that we choose neither one. We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint, and then born into a world of circumstances that we cannot control in our most-formative years. The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens—equal before the law—possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision-making. The unique patterns of neurobiology inside each of our heads cannot qualify as choices; these are the cards we’re dealt. _Atlantic

But science is learning more about why our brains cause us to behave within particular patterns, and technology is providing ever more sophisticated tools to allow science to learn even more. At some point, even the bureaucracies of government and criminal justice will have to accept some of the more sophisticated ideas of human biodiversity coming from cognitive science and gene expression.
The study of brains and behaviors is in the midst of a conceptual shift. Historically, clinicians and lawyers have agreed on an intuitive distinction between neurological disorders (“brain problems”) and psychiatric disorders (“mind problems”). As recently as a century ago, a common approach was to get psychiatric patients to “toughen up,” through deprivation, pleading, or torture. Not surprisingly, this approach was medically fruitless. After all, while psychiatric disorders tend to be the product of more-subtle forms of brain pathology, they, too, are based in the biological details of the brain.

What accounts for the shift from blame to biology? Perhaps the largest driving force is the effectiveness of pharmaceutical treatments. No amount of threatening will chase away depression, but a little pill called fluoxetine often does the trick. Schizophrenic symptoms cannot be overcome by exorcism, but they can be controlled by risperidone. Mania responds not to talk or to ostracism, but to lithium. These successes, most of them introduced in the past 60 years, have underscored the idea that calling some disorders “brain problems” while consigning others to the ineffable realm of “the psychic” does not make sense. Instead, we have begun to approach mental problems in the same way we might approach a broken leg. _Atlantic
Does this mean that criminals should be treated more leniently, or that they are relieved from any responsibility for their crimes? Impossible to say, without specific data for each particular case.

The potential for a full-blown data explosion is lurking just over the horizon, and current day lawyers, judges, law enforcement officers, prison officials, parole departments, and so on... are totally unprepared for the changes that are likely to come along.

Prisons are filling up with violent criminals. With the importation into the developed world of persons from high crime regions -- such as Latin America, Africa, Central and South Asia -- the nations of Europe, North America, and to some extent Oceania, will find it increasingly difficult to pay for needed correctional facilities. Particularly with the ongoing demographic implosion among high value taxpayers in those countries.

Which of these countries -- increasingly in the throes of unmanageable debt and demographic decline -- will be able to shift to a biologically-informed approach to criminology? Come back in 20 years and find out.

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