Offenders with Genetic Mental Illness Judged More Harshly

New findings from the University of Missouri contradict the popular notion that offenders with genetic mental disorders are judged less harshly for their criminal actions.

In fact, the study found that offenders with genetic mental illness known to predispose them to criminal behavior are judged more harshly than mentally disordered offenders whose criminal behavior may have been caused by environmental factors, such as childhood abuse.

In addition, criminals with genetic mental disorders are judged just as negatively as offenders whose mental disorder is given no explanation.

“We are used to thinking that if people who commit criminal acts suffer from a mental disorder, then that should be taken into account when assigning blame and punishment for their crimes,” said Philip Robbins, an associate professor of philosophy in the University of Missouri (MU) College of Arts and Science.

“In our study, we wanted to determine if it mattered why and how defendants acquired those mental disorders, and how that might affect the way society assigns blame and punishment when a crime is committed.”

Robbins and Paul Litton, a professor in the MU School of Law, tested this hypothesis and explored its implications for philosophy, psychology and the law. They conducted two surveys with 600 participants; the findings revealed that if the cause of a mental disorder was genetic, study participants tended to place more blame and assign harsher punishment for the crime compared to cases in which the offender had a non-genetic mental disorder.

The researchers also expected to find that different environmental explanations would elicit different judgments from the study participants. For example, they predicted that a reduced punishment would be more likely for an offender who developed a mental disorder due to childhood abuse compared to someone whose mental disorder resulted purely by accident, such as falling off a bike.

“Our theory was that people who have been intentionally harmed by caregivers are seen as more victim-like than people who have suffered accidents,” Robbins said. “If so, intentional harm should be associated with less negative moral judgment than non-intentional harm. However, we found that whether the harm was intentional or accidental, it didn’t affect judgments of blame or punishment.”

Further research is necessary to determine why there is no difference between intentional and unintentional causes of harm. However, the new findings add to empirical research for defense attorneys to consider when constructing their case for a more lenient sentence. The study suggests that presenting evidence of severe childhood abuse suffered by the defendant will be more effective than explaining the crime in genetic terms.

“It’s a little surprising that genetic explanations have no mitigating effect,” Robbins said. “We think the reason is that with a genetically caused mental disorder, there is no pre-existing person who has been harmed, so the offender is not seen as a victim. In the environmental cases, the offender is seen as a victim. That’s what makes the difference.”

Source: University of Missouri-Columbia