ADVERTISEMENT

Neurobiological Evidence In Sentencing Decisions: A Double-Edged Sword

Brain evidence is playing an increasing role in criminal trials, and new research by Allen and colleagues (2019) suggests that such evidence may have both aggravating and mitigating effects on criminal sentencing. Indeed, legal theorists have previously portrayed physical evidence of brain dysfunction as a double-edged sword: on the one hand, capable of decreasing punitive motivations by minimizing the offender’s perceived responsibility for his transgressions, while, on the other hand, capable of increasing punitive motivations towards the offender by virtue of his ostensibly increased dangerousness. But, this effect has never been demonstrated experimentally.

Allen and colleagues (2019) sought to directly test this pattern. After presenting a large sample of 330 participants with a criminal case summary describing a sexual assault, participants were prompted to render an initial sentence recommendation. Next, participants were informed about the defendant’s mental health status using evidence of disorder described either as neurobiological or psychological, and treatable or untreatable. Participants then had an opportunity to amend their original criminal sentencing judgments and were able to allocate time between prison sentencing and involuntary hospitalization however they saw fit.

ADVERTISEMENT

As hypothesized, neurobiological evidence elicited both shorter prison sentences and longer involuntary hospitalization terms compared to equivalent psychological evidence. These same effects were also observed when analyzing a participant’s change from baseline sentencing recommendation (see Figure 1). As hypothesized, decreased prison sentence length was accounted for by a change in deontological concerns — i.e., participants within the neurobiological condition found the defendant as less morally responsible and blameworthy for his actions, compared to those in the psychological condition.

Fig 1. Punishment change score by condition. Bars denote the percentage change in time from individual baseline punishment rating across conditions, for their revised prison recommendation (dark grey) and recommendation for involuntary hospitalization (light grey). Standard error bars shown. Image republished with permission from Corey Allen and PLOS ONE from https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210584

Overall, the experimental findings suggest that when mental health evidence is presented as having a neurobiological cause, laypeople are likely to assign more importance to it. Paradoxically, this effect seems to both favor and disfavor the defendant, depending on the punitive options available. That is, though prison sentences may be mitigated by the presentation of neurobiological evidence, the same evidence may increase the defendant’s risk of being involuntarily hospitalized.

These observed effects may have far-reaching implications for the law, which regularly confronts questions about the quality and presentation format of mental health evidence. For example, how can policymakers best manage the observed effects? Should neurobiological evidence always be accompanied by corresponding psychological/behavioral evidence or even warnings of potential biasing effects? Should jurors be made aware of treatment options or mandates in the case of excuse by mental illness of the defendant? Should judges receive a legal education on neurobiological evidence? Additional work is needed to answer these questions and explore other practical applications of this research.

These findings are described in the article entitled Reconciling the opposing effects of neurobiological evidence on criminal sentencing judgments, recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.

ADVERTISEMENT

Comments

READ THIS NEXT

How Low Can Conventional Generators Go? Why “Minimum Generation” Is Key To Maximum Renewable Integration

One of the key issues with renewable integration is understanding how variable generation (VG) resources, such as wind and solar, […]

Water Vapor Radiative Effects On Spain

Climate is an extremely complex system in which all elements are interconnected. Among them, water is one of paramount importance. […]

Food Safety: Green, Cost-Effective And Sensitive Method To Detect Metronidazole And Other 5-NDZ Residues In Food

In the current global food market, consumers are more concerned than ever about the food that they eat. Within this […]

List Of World Currencies And Countries That Use Them

It is a well-known fact that all around the world, different countries use different kinds of money. Trying to buy […]

Gates Foundation Backs Plan To Combat Malaria By Bio-Engineering Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes are one of the primary ways that malaria spreads across the globe, and mosquitoes are also responsible for killing […]

What Is Bitcoin Mining & How Has It Evolved?

By now you have probably heard of the revolutionary cryptocurrency Bitcoin and how it’s going to shape the world of […]

Patient Preference And Timing For Exercise In Breast Cancer Care

Treatments for cancer vary and depend on many individual factors. However, there is one universal recommendation for cancer patients: avoid […]

Science Trends is a popular source of science news and education around the world. We cover everything from solar power cell technology to climate change to cancer research. We help hundreds of thousands of people every month learn about the world we live in and the latest scientific breakthroughs. Want to know more?