ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Violent, psychopathic criminals have physical abnormalities in the parts of their brains related to learning from punishment, and imprisonment alone has little effect on remorse or rates of recidivism in such offenders, a study released this week has found.
“One in five violent offenders is a psychopath. They have higher rates of recidivism and don’t benefit from rehabilitation programs,” said Sheilagh Hodgins of the University of Montreal, one of two lead authors of the study. “Our research reveals why this is and can hopefully improve childhood interventions to prevent violence and behavioral therapies to reduce recidivism.”
“Psychopathic offenders are different from regular criminals in many ways,” said the other lead author, Nigel Blackwood of King’s College London. “Regular criminals are hyper-responsive to threat, quick-tempered and aggressive, while psychopaths have a very low response to threats, are cold, and their aggression is premeditated. Evidence is now accumulating to show that both types of offenders present abnormal, but distinctive, brain development from a young age.”
The study looked at 12 violent offenders with antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy, 20 violent offenders with antisocial personality disorder but not psychopathy, and 18 healthy non-offenders. Those in the two offender cohorts had been convicted of murder, rape, attempted murder and grievous bodily harm. MRI examinations found reductions in gray matter in regions of the psychopathic brains, relative to the other offenders and non-offenders.
The findings support a study published last summer that dealt with adolescent killers in New Mexico. It was conducted by scientists at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, including Kent Kiehl, a professor of psychology, neuroscience and law at UNM and the MRN’s executive science officer.
This week, Kiehl said he is not surprised by the new findings.
“Yes, this is exactly one of the main points I’ve made,” he said. “… Some people, namely psychopaths, do not learn from punishment.”
For that reason, programs that emphasize rewards can influence outcomes in positive ways, such as less recidivism, he said.
When the MRN study was published, Kiehl said the hope was that science would eventually be able to intercede in the lives of children who act out and reduce or even prevent the likelihood of violent crimes.
However, UNM law professor Leo Romero, who teaches criminal law and procedure, noted the four classical theories of punishment: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation and restraint, and said the report on the study he read does not discuss excusing criminal behavior or whether behavior can be changed.
In recent years, many states have shifted their focus to restraint and retribution, he said. “And restraint is a legitimate basis for punishment. We need to protect our communities from dangerous people.”
The law also has not been very welcoming to the notion of accepting abnormalities as a reason for excusing bad behavior. An exception might be insanity, but the parameters of that defense haven’t changed for about 100 years.
Moreover, in sentencing, a judge or jury might be inclined to hand a longer sentence to a psychopath if evidence showed a likelihood for continued violent behavior, Romero said.