Neuroscience and the Criminal Justice System

My wife passed to me an interesting article about the state of neuroscience and its impact upon our criminal justice system. Fair warning: I read the blog post and not the original essay. I agree with some of what the author of the essay has to say. Our criminal justice system is a hodgepodge of competing goals, some of which act as exclusive to one another, unfortunately. What’s jail for, after all? To protect society? To punish the guilty? To deter future crimes? As it currently sits, all of the above, and that can create all sorts of issues.

Into this environment, add the concept of “guilt” with regards to mental health. Neuroscience and genetic psychology are getting better all the time, and over and over again, it’s pointing to the dominating role genes play in not only our life course, but our everyday actions. I’m currently reading Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, which cites tons of research with twins to pretty much settle the “nurture vs. nature” argument. It’s nature, hands down, within some common sense boundaries.

Where I part ways with the author of the essay first mentioned is his dismissal of the idea of free will. For the most part, I think that idea is a non-starter, and neuroscience and genetic research doesn’t disprove any of it, at least from my perspective as an interested layman. Outside of extreme cases (like his mention of Tourette’s syndrome), free will certainly does exist on a micro and macro scale. Arguing that it doesn’t strikes me as more of a college level coffee house debate than anything else. I think a better way of viewing the role of genetics and neuroscience in a person’s actions is that those genes, and their expressions, create a likely range of actions and decisions. It doesn’t pre-suppose them. This discussion makes for great science fiction, interesting theological discussions, and fun arguments, but it ends where reality begins, in my opinion.

His arguments about how we should reform our criminal justice system is on much firmer ground. How much the convicted is blameworthy shouldn’t have any bearing on if they should be locked up or not. But of course, this assumes that the system is setup primarily for the protection of society, which it’s only partially so. Other use is to extract justice upon the evil doers, in lieu of the victim. In this case, the blameworthiness of the convicted does have a bearing, right? Lawmakers and judges should be operating from a clear set of principles on the why, and not only the how.

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