The United States justice system is constantly fighting to figure out the best way to deal with its criminals and define who deserves what punishment. One of the biggest debates is who is responsible for their crime and who is not? A key group in this debate is psychopaths, who know what is right and wrong through socialization, but may not truly feel the difference due to differences in who they are. While psychopathy is not officially defined and recognized by the DSM V, there is still a test to determine who should be diagnosed and who should not be. To diagnose psychopathy, the Psychopathy Check List Revised is used. It asses 20 traits that an individual may have if they are suffering from psychopathy. If they meet the requirements set in place by this checklist, should they get a special treatment in court? Are psychopaths responsible for the crimes they commit, such as murder, or do the differences in their physical and mental makeup take away from their guilt?
In this paper I will be discussing what makes a psychopath different from the average person from a biological sense, court cases, the insanity plea, and other options for psychopathic criminals.
Differences in the Psychopaths Brain
Opinions on whether a psychopath is formed through nature or nurture vary widely, with evidence for both being the correct answer. But, in order for there to be a special treatment of psychopaths in courts there must be an obvious observable difference. For example, are psychopaths brains different than that of a neurotypical individual? And if so, would that account for them committing more violent crimes than the average person. Some studies show evidence for them being basically the same as the average person, while other studies show blatant differences between groups. One area of the brain that is widely accepted to be different in psychopaths is the amygdala. The amygdala is a part of the brain that detects threat, and therefor has long been thought to play a role in making psychopaths the way they are. With the use of fMRI, we can see that the amygdala in psychopathic individuals isn’t as reactive to images that would normally trigger a reaction from a control group. This is also true for children that have been diagnosed with conduct disorder. Psychopaths have also been documented with reduced amygdala activity in moral decision-making exercises, which could explain their poor decisions that lead to possible crime. Some more areas of the brain that are often believed to be different in psychopaths are the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate, and angular gyrus. There are studies that show that these areas have reduced functioning in psychopaths who score highly on the interpersonal factor of psychopathy. Lower levels of activity in these areas could lead to difficulty understanding others reaction to ones actions and failure to use emotion when making decisions. Another possibly biological reason as to why psychopaths act the way they do is because of thinning in the grey matter, mainly in the fronto-temporal lobe area. The frontal lobes act as a regulator of our impulses and drives, which prevent us from doing whatever we want or feel like. So, if a psychopath has thinning of grey matter in this area, they’re less able to stop and control the impulses that they have.
Execution in the United States
Our justice system has gone through radical changes with who we punish and how we do it within the past century. There have been a multitude of cases that have excluded different groups of people from the death penalty, which is seen as the final and ultimate form of punishment. From Atkins v Virginia , which banned the execution of an individual who has been deemed mentally retarded, to Ford v Wainwright, which states that insane offenders cannot be executed, and Panetti v Quarterman , that says people who don’t have an understanding as to why they’re being executed cannot be executed. If we do not severely punish those who are insane, incompetent, or mentally disabled, then why would we do that to those with extreme mental illness? It could be argued that those who have been diagnosed with psychopathy do not fully understand the extent to what they did as they don’t understand right and wrong in the way that most people do.
While all these cases talk only about execution, and I’m focused on the morality of imprisoning psychopaths, they still apply and help to make a point. Since psychopaths are more likely than those who are neurotypical to be imprisoned for violent crimes, and violent crimes are what most people are executed for, there’s a large chance that a psychopath will be sentenced to the death penalty.
The Insanity Defense
They could also be classified as insane, since the behavior they’re caring out could be considered compulsive. If their frontal cortex isn’t stopping them like it should, as shown in neuroimaging studies, then are they truly responsible for their actions?