Could Brain Scans Prevent Crime?

CC image Wikipedia.orgA neurocriminologist who has spent years studying brain development in criminals believes there exists a biological basis for criminal behavior.

Adrian Raine has spent 25 years in the US studying cognitive development, and before that he spent years in Britain attempting to decipher why criminals committed the crimes they did.  In 1994, Raine conducted a small but comprehensive study on 41 convicted killers and 41 “normal” individuals in a control group.  Raine used brain-imaging technology to reveal the size and functionality of different parts of the brain.  After looking at the images, Raine found that the two groups exhibited different metabolic activity in certain parts of the brain.  In the group of convicted killers, Raine noticed a significant reduction in the development of the prefrontal cortex, or the decision-making part of the brain.

Neuroscientists have done extensive research on the problems associated with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, linking it to many behavioral problems including:

  • Less control over the generation of strong emotions, like anger and rage
  • A greater addiction to risk
  • A reduction in self-control
  • Poor problem solving skills

All of these traits, of lack thereof, may mean a person is more predisposed to violence than other individuals.

The Slippery Slope

Raine has dedicated his life’s work to better understanding the criminal mind, piling up books of evidence that reveals humans may not be as in control of our actions as we believe to be.  While he has been able to define set of “biomarkers” which may make a person more predisposed to crime or violence, the question he keeps circling back to is, “What should we do with this information?”

If stopping crime before it happens sounds like something out of Hollywood, you’re not wrong; the film Minority Report tackled just that subject.  Set in a futuristic world, Tom Cruise works as a government agent that fights “PreCrime” with the help of three physics who can see into the future.  Crime is at an all-time low with this system, but the issue at the core of the movie is how guilty is a person who has yet to commit the crime of which they are accused?  Not surprisingly, the movie’s protagonist has no problem locking up would-be murderers until the physics foresee that he’ll murder someone, which causes him to run for his life all while proving that the physics are wrong.

The question at the center of Minority Report has been around long before it hit the big screen.  If you knew with 100% certainty that a person would commit a murder or sexual assault, should they be arrested for the crime before it is committed?  While it’s hard to argue that a person should be locked up before they commit a crime, if the tragedies at Newton or Columbine could be prevented, do we have an obligation to protect the innocent?  As Raine said, “If we buy into the argument that for some people factors beyond their control, factors in their biology, greatly raise the risk of them becoming offenders, can we justly turn a blind eye to that?”

Many will argue that we cannot lock up would-be criminals because you can never say with 100 percent certainty that they would have committed the crime.  Even if you knew with 99.9 percent certainty, there’s still a possibility that the person would decide against their actions.  While people can argue over the logistics of such propositions, it appears that Raine and his colleagues are getting closer to formulating an exact science for recognizing the likelihood to commit crime.

Technology in the Courtroom

As scientific evidence continues to mount, it seems more likely that brain imaging may soon become more popular in the courtroom.

“Raine’s findings could lead to new avenues for criminal defense,” said attorney Melvin Welch.  “Although it is not uncommon for the defense to argue that their client should be admitted to a mental health facility instead of a prison on the grounds of mental illness, these findings can help support the argument, which could greatly affect the outcome of the trial. Science may soon tell us that what is perceived as ‘normative’ is different for each individual based on uncontrollable circumstances.”

Raine touched on a similar issue when discussing who is actually at fault for committing a crime.

“Is it really the fault of the innocent baby whose mother smoked heavily in pregnancy that he went on to commit crimes?” said Raine. There is, and increasingly will be, an argument that he is not fully responsible and therefore, when we come to think of punishment, should we be thinking of more benign institutions than prison?”

Brain Scans at Parole Hearings

While preventing the initial crime before it occurs may not be feasible, Raine believes parole boards oftentimes use poor evidence when deciding if a criminal is fit for parole.

“The fact is parole boards are making exactly these kind of predictive decisions every day about which prisoner or young offender we are going to release early, often with crummy evidence,” said Raine. “At the moment, the predictors are social and behavioral factors, marital status, your past record. What is not used are biological measures. But I believe that if we added those things even now into the equation, we could only improve the prediction.”

To support his claims, Raine conducted two studies on prisoners who were set to be released form prison.  In the first study, he found that if the anterior cingulate in the brain is lower than normal before a prisoner is released, the person is twice as likely to be reconvicted within three years.

The second study found that is the prisoner has a significantly smaller amygdala, which helps process memory and emotion, the prisoner is 2-3x more likely to reoffend.

“Now, this is only two studies, but what they are beginning to show is proof of concept, that if we added neurological factors into the equation we could do a better job at predicting future behavior.”

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Avery Appelman

Avery Appelman is a criminal defense lawyer and the founder of Appelman Law Firm. While his practice is primarily recognized for its work with DWI and related offenses, he has 16 years of experience working with clients on drug, assault, theft, traffic, criminal sexual conduct, and prostitution charges.

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