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Demon Seed September 20, 2015

Posted by geoff in News.

The debate over punishment vs. rehabilitation for convicted criminals has gone on for decades – I remember it as part of a high school debate topic back in the 70’s. While there are always exceptions and grey areas, liberals typically support rehabilitation and conservatives prefer punishment. The arguments go like this:

Liberals/Rehabilitation: There’s no such thing as inherently bad people, there are just bad environments in which these people are raised and live. Punishing prisoners by incarceration compounds the problem by creating an even worse environment. If you teach criminals useful skills, they can become productive members of society, and by allowing the state to guide their schooling and upbringing, you can avoid creating criminals in the first place.

Conservatives/Punishment: Some people are just bad, and can never be rehabilitated. Plus, the success rate of rehabilitation is very low (i.e., the recidivism rate is very high – over 3/4 of released prisoners are rearrested within 5 years). It’s best at this point to protect the public by locking prisoners up and to try to deter criminal behavior through the threat of punishment.

And the Winner Is: Naturally both sides are correct: some people are deterred through the threat of punishment (about 40%, per California’s Three Strikes Law), and some are not. Some people can be rehabilitated, and some cannot.

And some people become criminals through bad upbringings and/or bad environments, and some people are just . . . evil.

You might think that last statement is questionable, but you’d be wrong:

Two recent psychological studies have found ways of spotting whether young children are vulnerable of becoming psychopaths, suggesting that parents don’t have total control over their offspring’s callous or cruel behavior.

Researchers at the University of New South Wales have found that some children as young as three years old display callous-unemotional traits (CU traits), which are linked to psychopathy.

Meanwhile, a UK study of more than 200 infants by researchers from King’s College London, the University of Manchester, and the University of Liverpool, found that it’s possible to predict whether five-week-old babies will go on to develop CU traits.

Five weeks old, huh? That pretty much settles the nature vs. nurture debate – at least for psychopaths. But if it’s true for psychopaths, it’s likely true for lesser criminal tendencies as well. After all, the cutoff line for being a psychopath is vague and somewhat arbitrary.

But having lost the “it’s all, or mostly, nurturing’s fault” argument, researchers are now hoping that nurture may cure the problem. A lib’s always gonna lib.

Though there’s evidence to suggest that psychopathy is influenced by genetics, researchers believe that parents could nurture their children in ways that could help them develop empathy.

Good luck with that. But at this point of our understanding of biology and psychology, I think I’ll stick with swift justice and stiff prison sentences.


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