What happens if you dial 666; or, upending the criminal justice system


Me for call someone did?

What happens when you dial 666, goes an old British childrens’ joke. Why, you get a policeman walking on his head!

If this study is anything to be believed, then we’ll all be dialing 119 pretty soon, for its implications are likely to turn the criminal justice system on its head. Professors at Vanderbilt University probed the brains of 16 volunteers, using MRIs, “as they judged scenarios of varying culpability and criminality on a scale of 0 to 9 – from no punishment to extreme punishment.”

(Yes, that is a picture of a British bobby. Upside down.)

Anyway, back to the study.

The results are rather intriguing:

When judging the guilt or innocence of alleged criminals, our brains seem to respond as if we were personally wronged, say researchers.

Our sense of fairness in dealing with others directly could lay the biological foundation for legal systems built on the judgements of supposedly impartial jurors, the researchers hypothesise.

“It suggests that ancient and modern criminal justice systems may otherwise be built on a much more primitive, pre-existing machinery for recognizing unfairness to you,” says Owen Jones, a professor of law and biology.

The study also found that the brain assesses guilt and metes out punishment using different mechanisms. Humans evaluate guilt in a more rational manner, whereas punishment is handed out more emotionally.

This brings together several ideas: First, what to make of States like Texas, that permit jurors to decide punishment? If the process of handing out punishment involves a more emotional determination, is it a good idea for individuals to decide? It could cut both ways: in the minority of cases where the defendant is sympathetic and has some hope of rehabilitation, the emotions of the jurors may be provoked into giving a lenient sentence. On the other hand, as I suspect is the case with most defendants, the desire to attain justice being driven by emotion and personalization, the punishments would be harsh and retributive.

Consider this study in light of the victims’ movement. If our brains respond as if we were personally wronged, then it makes sense that there is much sympathy for victims in the criminal justice system and that their role is increasing. After all, but for the grace of God go I.

One possible hypothesis of the study is that once the determination to punish has been made, the punishment process itself becomes emotionally charged. In that instance, is it wiser to have the same person (or set of people) make both decisions?

Critically, the criminal justice system is built on the premise that the guilt or innocence of individuals must be determined based solely on the evidence adduced in a courtroom – in other words, no emotion must play a role. But if any evidence is by jurors by placing themselves in the victim’s place, does it really result in an impartial determination? Or is this nothing new and we caution jurors against this all the time? Is there any effective way to get jurors to not place themselves in the victim’s shoes? If there isn’t, then what are statutes and elements of crimes good for anyway?

This study is apparently in its nascent stages. But assuming the results hold up, what does it mean for the criminal justice system? Does it mean that the system is inherently biased? That is based on a flawed premise? That there is no such thing as a fair trial? Or does it mean absolutely nothing because this research doesn’t actually break any new ground and it’s something we’ve been dealing with for a long time.

I don’t know the answers, but it’s fun to think about it.

3 thoughts on “What happens if you dial 666; or, upending the criminal justice system

  1. Dudley Sharp

    I have had quite a few conversations along this line.

    If jurors do feel, personally, wronged, it is, obviously, the collective type of harm that we want the jurors to have in mind, as those representing the collective will of the people, our peers.

    I think the reason that there is an emotional factor and should be, is because we are people, not robots. So the results of the study should not be surprising. A guilty or not guilty verdict can be seen as a much more objective finding, than the one for punishment. I think that is because what is “just” is a much more subjecting concept than a guilty or not guilty verdict, based upon beyond a reasonable doubt.

    I think we have all seen a not guilty verdict where some jurors have said, well, yeah, we think he’s guilty, but the state didn’t prove it beyond a reasobable doubt.

    With sanctions and mitigators, aggrvators and life stories, there is, often, more subjective considerations when deciding punishments and trying to decode the reasons for them.

    Many states already felt that way and that is why they passed statutes for the judges to make the final decision in death penalty cases. The thought was their experience would make them more objective and less emotional in making that decision. The reasoning may or may not have been sound, but there appears some element of truth to it, to me. However, Ring v Arizona got rid of judges making such decsions, in some states and under some circumstances.

    However, with all new developments in brain study, we need to take into some other observations. These found during the juvenile death penalty debate.

    UCLA’s Elizabeth Sowell, another prominent brain-development researcher, takes a dim view of the movement to apply neuroscience to the law. She says that no current research connects specific brain traits of typical teenagers to any mental or behavioral problems.

    “The scientific data aren’t ready to be used by the judicial system,” she remarks. “The hardest thing [for neuroscientists to do] is to bring brain research into real-life contexts.”

    The ambiguities of science don’t mix with social and political causes, contends neuroscientist Bradley S. Peterson of the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City.

    Brain-scanning techniques, including the popular MRI, remain a “crude level of analysis,” Casey notes. What’s more, many critical brain-cell responses are too fast for MRI to track.

  2. Windypundit

    Our brains do a lot of this kind of mirroring. Teach someone to juggle and see what parts of their brain are active while juggling. Now have them watch someone else juggle and watch the same areas light up in their brain as if they were juggling themselves.

    This does suggest that jurors will want to see evil punished, and that you should encourage them to think about the actual evidence instead of just reacting to the crime. But you knew that.

    Science is only just beginning to fill the gap between neurology and observable behavior. I think you’ll be way ahead of the neuroscientists for a long time.

  3. A Voice of Sanity

    It seems to me that any notions of prevention or rehabilitation are based on an unproven theory – that there exists a group of people in society who are or can be deterred by punishment. I suspect this group is very small indeed at least as regards homicide – most people either would not kill; or cannot be deterred by punishment. Detection is far more effective – if everyone had their own policeman the number of homicides would be very small.

    The real function of prison is to remove those persons from society who are a threat to it until such time as they are no threat. However what we do instead is to meter out punishment in sufficient quantity that we deter the victim or his family from revenge – a different policy.


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