How Neuroscience is Reforming Criminal Justice

Print More
brain

Illustration by A Health Blog via Flickr

In the courtroom, testimony or evidence about abnormalities or damage to a defendant’s brain has been used to assess the level of responsibility for criminal behavior. But new research into how the brain works is contributing to innovative strategies for reducing recidivism and developing alternatives to incarceration.

The Mind Research Network, a non-profit based in Albuquerque, N.M., has been on the forefront of discovering how the brains of psychopaths and violent offenders differ from the average person’s.

Psychopaths make up a substantial part of prison population and are 20 to 25 times more likely to be in prison than non-psychopaths.

Dr. Kent Kiehl, a lead researcher for the network, says the research can help target appropriate treatment for example, for youths who have demonstrated violent behavioral traits.

“This will improve our ability to predict which kids are high-risk, and how to individually tailor treatment to help kids change,” he told The Crime Report.

Using a portable MRI machine, Kiehl and his team studied and scanned the brains of roughly 4,000 violent juvenile and adults offenders from 10 prisons in two states over the last decade. The process yielded the largest neuroscientific database of violent offenders in the world.

One focus of the research was to examine the differences in the brains of juveniles who have committed homicides and juveniles who haven’t.

“Scanning is the easy part,” said Kiehl about the intensive process that goes into examining each inmate he studies.

In addition to scanning, Kiehl and his team conducted intensive clinical interviewing which examined IQ, past trauma and socioeconomic history, as well as personality.

Kiehl and the Mind Research Network have partnered with the Today=Tomorrow Program at Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center (MJTC) in Madison, Wi., a cognitive behavioral treatment program that tries to help juvenile offenders with psychopathic traits, according to its website, by educating “youth of the connection between their thoughts, attitudes, and emotions to their behaviors; to identify ‘thinking barriers’ and substitute responsible thinking, and to increase pro-social thinking and skills through modeling and role-play practices.”

The Today=Tomorrow Program at the MJTC has garnered some attention in recent years and has been covered in-depth by several outlets like NPR and The Atlantic.

Similarly, a study by the Douglas County Juvenile Department in Wisconsin found an 85 percent decrease in recidivism after one year among 48 subjects who went through the program, and a 94 percent decrease in recidivism after two years with a smaller sample size of 12 subjects.

The program is not likely to make these troubled juveniles into model citizens, but it tries to teach them a practical form of empathy that can help them avoid the impulse to commit violent or criminal acts.

Kiehl has been scanning subjects in the program three times during the process of treatment to understand mechanisms of change in those who don’t come back for repeat offenses.

Research like Kiehl’s is helping neuroscientists map out which brain regions should be targeted for treatment that will translate to improved behavioral and life outcomes.

This approach has been likened to working on a muscle that has atrophied from not being used.

“That’s the holy grail, to show which therapies and treatments adjust and help these circuits adapt,” Kiehl said. “What is the brain mechanism of change, and is it sustainable?

“That’s what we’re working on now. And if we figure that out we can get carefully derived measure of treatment efficacy.”

The concept of brain age and maturity is at the heart of Kiehl’s work with juveniles and psychopaths. Neuroscience can be a way to help determine how mature a person’s brain is more accurately than their numerical age.

Kiehl says that this is the essence of neuro-prediction.

“If you can measure the brain components that predict something rather than a proxy, like impulsivity, that circuit will indicate someone’s future impulsive behavior better than self-reports or other ways of measurements,” he said.

“Brain age is a better predictor if you re-offended than your date of birth.”

Drawing conclusions about people’s behavior based on brain imaging presents challenges and pitfalls for neuroscientists, however.

One danger involves a term called reverse inference, which can amount to researchers overestimating how much a certain area of the brain is involved or responsible for determining a specific behavior or cognitive process.

Kiehl argues that having strong data that can allow for good predictive power helps lessen the need for interpretation, and limit the possibility of errors that stem from things like reverse inference.

Scientists may disagree about the exact function and role of the amygdala, for example, which has been linked to fear and aggression. But, according to Kiehl, “an amygdala deficit is an amygdala deficit. We can academically argue about the interpretation, but what’s really important is the data.”

Other than the obvious benefit of reducing future violent acts and the damage that ripples from them, the kind of treatment offered at the MJTC can ultimately be much cheaper than it is to incarcerate people in the long run if reoffending can be reliably reduced.

A 2006 study in the Journal of Research on Crime and Delinquency found, “Over the 4.5 year follow–up, the return on the investment in the MJTC amounted to over 700 percent.”

Dr. Daniel Martell, a forensic expert at Park Dietz & Associates, and assistant clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at U.C.L.A., says that even though neuroscience is starting to tackle problems that were once thought to be unsolvable, like how psychopathy can be effectively treated, it has a long way to go before it’s ready for widespread implementation.

“We get great findings, but the problem is getting researchers to actually replicate those findings,” said Martell.

“We don’t really even have first generation studies to be replicated, so that’s where people like Kiehl are contributing.”

Martell went on to say that in terms of overall progress, “we’re still crawling.”

Dr. Francis Shen, an associate professor of law at the University of Minnesota who specializes in what’s called neurolaw, thinks that neuroscience will need to work in tandem with other developing sciences, such as genetics and psychology, in order to make the most valuable contributions to law and other fields.

Shen notes that neuroscience presently doesn’t show a lot of new ways to successfully alter the brain, and it is currently best thought of as a tool to aid in behavioral interventions, not only for juveniles but in other areas of law as well.

Shen used the example of poverty law to describe how neuroscience can make contributions to existing data from other fields about the effects poverty has on people.

“We are starting to open the black box,” Shen said in an interview with The Crime Report. “We don’t need neuroscience to tell us that poverty’s bad, but neuroscience will let us understand the mechanisms that allow for earlier and more targeted interventions and reframe discussion for policies.”

As mentioned above, neuroscience offers opportunities to extrapolate brain data and make claims about human behavior that aren’t justified.

However, Shen and Kiehl have both pointed out that neuroscience, as well as other human sciences, usually make predictions based on a spectrum.  Neuroscience deals in probabilities, and tries to predict the likelihood someone will behave a certain way.

Someone who is diagnosed as highly psychopathic may never actually commit a violent crime, although the probability they will is higher compared to the average person.

While one should always be wary of both the past mistakes that have been made in the name of brain science, and the obstacles that lie ahead, the work mentioned by Kiehl and others is trying to up-end the determinism that many fear results from a neuroscientific perspective of behavior.

Dane Stallone is a TCR news intern. He welcomes comments from readers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *