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.
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.