Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Science of Justice

Terry Eaglton writes on human nature, justice and morality in The New Statesman:
In fact, the word [evil] has come to mean, among other things, "without a cause". If the child killers did what they did because of boredom or bad housing or parental neglect, then - so the police officer may have feared - what they did was forced upon them by their circumstances; and it followed that they could not be punished for it as severely as he might have wished. This mistakenly implies that an action that has a cause cannot be freely undertaken. Causes in this view are forms of coercion. If our actions have causes, we are not responsible for them. Evil, on the other hand, is thought to be uncaused, or to be its own cause. This is one of its several points of resemblance with good. Apart from evil, only God is said to be the cause of himself.
It is a fairly common occurrence for particularly ghastly crimes to be referred to in subhuman terms.  It is as if by describing the acts in this way we somehow avoid any culpability as humans ourselves.  Surely we could never behave this way.  After a recent case in which a 7 year old girl was raped by a gang of older boys in a housing project, the mayor referred to them as "monsters".  One often hears the sentiment how could they do something like this?, despite the fact that evil things have been done since the dawn of history. 

There is no argument that terrible crimes are, well, terrible.  But what is strange is the persistence of the myth that there is no explanation for why evil is done.  For more than a century we have been collecting data on this very question.  And all of it points in the same direction: that human behavior is the result of a combination of biological and environmental development.  The type of brain you have, and the type of world you are raised in determines what kind of person you will be.

Wise people have always known this.  But until science lead us toward evidenciary claims, there was no real way of arguing it without appeals to nebulous philosophy or theorizing, which were often little more than aphorisms.  Today we know enough that, while unable to determine all of the causes and influences that caused someone to commit a particular crime, we are able to make pretty clear predictions as to what types of environments and brains are conducive to criminal behavior.

I've taught low-income children in Kindergarten as well as high school, and as a class they are much more likely to end up in prison.  The writing was on the wall the minute they walked in the classroom.  They often came from dysfunctional homes in which good parenting was not practiced - despite how loving and well-meaning the parents generally were.  But few were very successful themselves, and had difficulties with drugs, relationships, work - much less raising children. 

The research on early childhood bears this out.  Literally starting before birth, children are absorbing their environment, whether from toxins like lead paint and allergens more common in poor housing, to the mother's stress level and tone of voice.  Language becomes very important for the development of cognition and communication.  Socioeconomic status is a major predictor for how much positive (or negative) stimulus a child will receive before entering school. 

Teachers are then burdened with the task of trying to make up for concentrated communities of disadvantaged children.  As they fall behind in school, whether to lack of emotional development and behavioral control or academic struggle, the beginnings of criminality emerge.  There is nothing more tragic than looking at statistical averages for future success of poor populations.  "If only someone would step in and help these children," you want to ask.  The teachers and administration can only do so much.  Many fathers are in prison or simply absent, and many mothers are working or high - or unable for a variety of reasons to protect their babies from falling down the wrong path.

Yet this is all happening on our watch.  This is us.  This is what humans do in desperate situations.  We would all be exactly the same - facing the same odds of failure.   Instead of neglecting disadvantaged members of society, we ought to be targeting those most at risk for unhealthy behaviors and intervening.  The earlier we get to them, the better chance we'll have to correct their development.

At the same time, the adult population is not, nor likely will ever be, perfect.  There are some pathologies that are likely genetic, and may never be corrected for.  Certain individuals, such as serial killers or pedophiles, we may never be able to diagnose and respond to before they commit their first crime.  Their pathologies are still relatively mysterious, however seem to have a strong genetic component.  In the future, treatments might be developed to reverse their effects.  In the meantime, criminal justice agencies are grappling with appropriate levels of response.  Pedophilia presents a particularly troubling situation because lesser offenses may not call for a life prison term, yet there is no evidence that any "cure" exists.  Management programs have been developed to try and find a balance, but the problem is ongoing.  An encouraging sign is that, despite our traditional inclination to treat them as "evil" instead of mentally ill, we are moving toward a more rational and evidence-based assessment of their pathology.

Still, while these difficult cases continue to strain our scientific understanding of human behavior, they represent only a small portion of prison populations, thankfully.  Most criminals are very explainable, and sadly, highly predictable according to socioeconomic status.  However the good news is that we know that interventions are still possible.  The hard part is in crafting public policy that the rest of the public will view as not only effective, but at a cost sufficiently low to sacrifice their tax dollars for.  The moral case is clear: if these individuals have been, for all intents and purposes, created by society, then it is our duty to do everything in our power to help them.  Because as much as they have been created by society, so to have we.  And as our brothers and sisters we owe it to them to share what we have been "blessed" with.

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