That's the title of a very interesting article in the Wall Street Journal today. As a former prison chaplain, I'm intensely interested in what makes criminals tick, and ways to better understand, treat, and 'recondition' them. The article analyzes how new scientific discoveries are changing our understanding of why criminals act as they do, and how we can change both sentencing and release policies to better help them and protect society. Here's an excerpt.
The field of neurocriminology—using neuroscience to understand and prevent crime—is revolutionizing our understanding of what drives "bad" behavior. More than 100 studies of twins and adopted children have confirmed that about half of the variance in aggressive and antisocial behavior can be attributed to genetics. Other research has begun to pinpoint which specific genes promote such behavior.
Brain-imaging techniques are identifying physical deformations and functional abnormalities that predispose some individuals to violence. In one recent study, brain scans correctly predicted which inmates in a New Mexico prison were most likely to commit another crime after release. Nor is the story exclusively genetic: A poor environment can change the early brain and make for antisocial behavior later in life.
. . .
It is growing harder and harder ... to avoid the mounting evidence. With each passing year, neurocriminology is winning new adherents, researchers and practitioners who understand its potential to transform our approach to both crime prevention and criminal justice.
. . .
This brings us to the second major change that may be wrought by neurocriminology: incorporating scientific evidence into decisions about which soon-to-be-released offenders are at the greatest risk for reoffending. Such risk assessment is currently based on factors like age, prior arrests and marital status. If we were to add biological and genetic information to the equation—along with recent statistical advances in forecasting—predictions about reoffending would become significantly more accurate.
There's much more at the link. Highly recommended reading.
There's always the potential for misuse of these discoveries, of course. An overly 'Big Brother' administration might decide that if someone who's never committed a crime in his or her life shows evidence of brain traits or characteristics similar to those of hardened criminals, he or she should be 'preventively' detained, or have their civil liberties curtailed as a precaution. That's not acceptable, and hopefully never will be - but it's a risk. I'll be interested to see how scientists and specialists propose to deal with it.