Philly Blunt

Freelance writer. Editor and web-video producer. Former Atlantic City Press and Philadelphia Weekly staff writer, City Paper managing editor/columnist and Dougherty for Senate campaign manager. Comments welcome here or emailed to brianhickey9 [at] hotmail. Now on: Facebook (Brian Hickey, in Philly) Twitter at Flickr at Be sure to check out Hickey on Divorce Court:

11 November 2008

The End of Criminal Justice?

I've always been fascinated with stories about what makes psychopaths click. I guess that's why I ended up writing in-depth stories about Gary Heidnik survivor Josefina Rivera, the evisceration death of Pete Kent and another on the hooker serial-murders in Atlantic City that happened two years ago this month. (Not to mention the piece I'm currently working on which, if I might toot my own horn here, promises to be the best thing I've ever written. More on that in a month or two.)
All of which is to explain why I was fascinated by a piece in last week's New Yorker by John Seabrook, which delves into not only the history of the field of study (from Iago to Bundy), but a new move to bring mobile brain-scanners into prisons to see whether our nation's psychopaths are driven by rage or mental defect.

(New Yorker illustration by John Ritter)

Truth be told, it's one of the best articles I've read of late. But then, right near the end of the story, I read a passage that got my haunches all up in a tizzy. Allow me to share:

Like many in the field of psychopathy research, Kiehl is aware of the enormous social implications of accepting psychopathy as a form of mental illness. What, for example, would you do with the young psychopaths who don’t respond to treatment? The stigma would be profound.
It’s not hard to imagine a day when everyone’s personal psychopathy risk will be assigned early in life—a kind of criminal-potential index. Kiehl was recently appointed as a scientific member of the MacArthur Foundation’s Law and Neuroscience Project, which will study some of the legal implications of neuroimaging.
Psychopathy also raises fundamental issues about justice. At the core of our judicial system is the assumption that someone who appears sane is culpable for his actions. (In the U.S., there is no insanity defense for psychopaths.) As Decety, of the University of Chicago, put it to me, “We still basically work out of a Biblical system of punishment—we don’t consider, in most cases, to what extent the offender’s actions were intentional or unintentional. But what neuroscience is showing us is that a great many crimes are committed out of compulsion—the offenders couldn’t help it. Once that is clear, and science proves it, what will the justice system do?”
Joseph Newman told me, “I go around and give speeches to the staff in prisons, saying the inmates are not just assholes, and afterwards the guards come up and say, ‘Enjoyed your talk, Doc, but are you saying these guys aren’t responsible for their crimes?’ ”

Now, here's my worry: While it's utterly fascinating to think that, finally, after generations of people effected by such a curse, we may be thisclose to understanding many of the root causes of violent crime, it looks like there's a hefty price tag attached.
Namely, that relentless gaggle of think-they're do-gooders who posit that they understand the horrific ramifications of crime victimization (which they don't) will start holding up brain scans to say, "See, your honor, it's not their fault. We need to let him/her out of prison since they're sick. It's a disease. They can't help themselves!"
Already, we live in a land where too many people don't understand that some people deserve to die for their crimes, regardless of any deterrent effect. Now, we could be veering toward a climate where no psychopath deserves to be imprisoned, let alone executed.
As someone who's spent years working closely with those left behind in horrific-crime's wake, I'm worried that their needs will be ignored, as they so often seem to be. We need to pay close attention to this one, folks.


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