Should the justice system be amended for psychopaths?

The genetic basis of psychopathy may hold the key to a more compassionate justice system

Writer: Nirvan Marathe
Editor: Daniel Jacobson
Artist: Qiwen Liu

Psychopathy: a word that strikes fear into the heart of many because of its unsavoury portrayal in pop culture – but what exactly is a psychopath? Public opinion might depict a cold-blooded and emotionless individual, but I’d like to explore a different view – one in which psychopaths themselves are sufferers of a neurological disorder. Psychopathy clinically manifests itself in distinct phenotypes including a lack of empathy and guilt, poor emotional responses, and antisocial behaviour, with there being an ongoing debate about whether or not psychopathy is innately biological. If it is innate, it could lead to great changes in the current criminal justice system and how society interacts with psychopathic individuals. If psychopathy is something which an individual is born with, is it really fair to treat them the same way as a criminal who chose to commit a crime out of their own volition?

To start with, it’s important to clarify the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath. Psychopathy, while there isn’t a universal definition, is thought to affect the sufferer from birth and, in the medical world, is referred to as antisocial personality disorder, whereas sociopathy is an environmentally-influenced disorder. The initial debate of psychopathy’s potential biological basis was sparked by the discovery that its extreme phenotypes were highly heritable. Prior to this, psychopathy was believed to solely be a product of the environment in which the sufferer was brought up in – a manifestation of neglective and disruptive parenting. 

Following this, the environmental influence wasn’t ruled out but rather regarded as something which shaped the biological framework for psychopathy, which was already present from birth. Additionally, further research found that this biological framework was not identical across psychopathic patients despite the characteristically similar phenotypes between psychopaths. Some of these include upregulation of the RPL1099 and ZNF132 genes, in tandem with the downregulation of the CDH5 and OPRD1 genes in neurons. These genes are associated with the prefrontal-temporo-limbic circuit in the brain, which encompasses regions associated with our emotional response and thus are directly linked to the classic lack of empathy and apparent callousness exhibited in psychopaths.

While an abundance of research has been produced supporting the hypothesis of a largely biological aetiology of psychopathy, it is still regarded as insufficient by the wider scientific community, so no explicit conclusions have been drawn. The lack of breakthroughs in the field is disconcerting because if the biological basis for psychopathy is to be believed, the current justice system has been mistreating sufferers for years. In fact, if a criminal is labelled as having antisocial personality disorder, it can lead to colossal ramifications such as a large increase in sentence severity, increased chance of execution, and harsher treatment in prison.

All of this raises a serious question: is jail time the most appropriate solution for psychopaths? Fundamentally, a crime deserves justice for the victim regardless of whether or not the perpetrator was born with a neurological disorder. However, would jail be the most appropriate setting for the rehabilitation of psychopaths, or would psychotherapy in a psychiatric institution be more appropriate? There is contrasting evidence for both sides of the argument here, with institutional treatments resulting in observed benefits in several studied psychopaths, but that is paired with a high risk of non-completion of programs and a large recidivism rate.

After reading all of that, you may wonder whether psychopathy is even worth further research funding. I believe that significant advances in research still need to occur before we can conclude in either side’s favour. However, I do not condone psychopaths being given harsher sentences over unafflicted criminals. As more neuroanatomical studies are conducted, our study of the brain’s structures will improve, as will our understanding of psychopathy. Further research into the applications of neuroplasticity and epigenetics will lead to concluding whether psychopathy is treatable or not. My opinion is that if psychopathy is indeed found to be a condition individuals are born with, then the lack of guilt we see in them should be regarded more as a phenotype. As with any other phenotypes of neurological disorders, the afflicted deserve to be treated and rehabilitated to the best of our ability with the help of psychiatric institutions.

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