Psychiatrists should sentence criminals, not judges

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The current criminal justice system is openly and admittedly imperfect. We know that we have an evidence based system, not a truth based system and that makes it impossible to claim that we deliver real justice when we can not claim absolute truth. In addition to the fallibility of jury verdicts, the sentences that are handed down are based (in many cases) on the inconsistent rulings of judges across the nation. Some judges are prejudicial to particular kinds of crimes, others have implicit biases that effect severity of sentences, in 2017 U.S. Sentencing Commission reports avg. sentence is 20% longer for black men.

In addition to the sentencing disparity across various social groups, we have inconsistency between the severity of sentences based on time of day, Psych department Univ. of Washington reports harsher sentences in late afternoon. Shifts in the socio-political climate also effect sentencing, sparking debate over whether sex offenders should face harsher sentences after #metoo movement brings to light systemic issues around sexual harassment and abuse. Given all the opportunities for bias and inequity the answer may not be harsher sentences, but smarter ones.

Fundamentally the U.S. judicial system is based on punishment, not rehabilitation. We see to separate those who have committed crimes into isolation as if there is nothing that can be done. There are many reasons this can happen but one of them us the idea that a prison is a place where bad people are sent, as opposed to a place that people who have done something bad are sent. If we hope to improve our society by decreasing crime, making safer communities, and keeping families whole we’ve got to change the way we are doing things.

Instead of judges handing down punishment based on the nature and severity of the crime, with priority on legal doctrine, we should have doctors with expertise in criminal psychology prescribe treatment based on the condition of the plaintiff. Psychologists and social workers have the opportunity to provide greater insight in to the reason for criminal behavior in the first place and can more accurately suggest corrective or medical, or penal interventions to prevent further instances. Our legal system categorizes crimes relatively well, but it does not go very far to address the nuances in the mind of the people who commit them.

When we see an offender express remorse, a psychologist can better asses the legitimacy of this remorse and help diagnose ways to alter behavior and for the accused to understand themselves. Research in leadership published by the Harvard Business Review illustrates that self-awareness leads to better decision making. In cases where there is not remorse clinicians can work to understand the reasoning for lack of empathy or guilt that justified the criminals behavior in their own mind, this can be helpful in steering them to understand where they are at fault and developing the desire to change.

Of course therapy is not a silver bullet, but it does change the approach to justice, by making is a more human centered enterprise that prioritizes addressing the conditions surrounding criminal activity as opposed to one that prioritizes responding to the type of crime that was committed.

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