When brain imaging started twenty years ago, it opened up a way for researchers to study the brains of violent people and compare them to normal ones.
This new field is called Neurocriminology.
It is considered to be, “an emerging subdiscipline of biocriminology and criminology in general, which applies brain imaging techniques and principles from neuroscience to understand, predict and prevent crime,” according to our good friend Wikipedia.
The new field is more roughly known as explaining crime based on brain imaging.
Adrian Raine, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is a pioneer in this field.
He conducts brain imaging studies on murderers and the results have convinced him that there exists another side to violent behaviours, apart from what we have known such as the social or environmental ones.
“There’s a biological basis also to recidivistic violent offending,” Raine stated in his book: The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime.
Raine said this will help us redirect our way of preventing as well as rehabilitating the criminals.
If criminal behavior is indeed caused by the biology of one’s brain, then parts of those behaviours are uncontrollable. Should we still hold people fully responsible?
According to Raine’s research, his own brain scan image resembles that of the serial killer Randy Kraft.
It encouraged him to think of why he doesn’t become a violent offender, and what keeps him away from that path.
He answered the question himself that love could be the critical ingredient.
“I always felt loved. There was always a roof over my head. There was always a secure environment. And I got on with my brothers and sisters.”
This also raises a question about the death penalty.
In criminal law, there are two broad elements to a crime: actus reus (the guilty act) and mens rea (the guilty mind).
The rationale behind the rule is that it is wrong for society to punish those who innocently cause harm.
Since the brain, which you are born with and unable to control, is involved in the act, should the mens rea be reduced in some way, and therefore should the punishment be mitigated?
Type in “death penalty” in Google and one of the top ten results you’ll get is “doesn’t work.”
Maybe it really doesn’t help deter crime at all?
The death penalty has been abolished in many parts of the world. Raine is from England, where the death penalty doesn’t exist.
“You just think, ‘That’s crazy, having the death penalty,’” he said.
Another question arises is the help of this research in detecting violence.
Can we just go and scan everyone’s brains, or at least the suspect’s, to find out if they have a chance of being a violent criminal? And to secure safety for everyone by preventing future wrongdoing, should those people be under watch?
This somehow conflicts with the actus reus (guilty act) requirement of criminal law.
It is clearly irrational to put someone in jail for what they haven’t done yet.
Neurocriminology has proved to have certain effects on court and society’s legal decision.
Brain scans are beginning to be used as mitigating evidence by US legal defense teams.
While there are not yet preventative programs in place that would utilize the recent field of neurocriminology, there do exist offender rehabilitation programs.
These interesting concepts are potentially groundbreaking in moving our insight and effectiveness in dealing with criminal behaviours forward.
Nevertheless, a deeper and broader understanding will only be more compelling.
And hopefully, based on that, legislators can bring the law one step closer to “justice.”