Simply Punishing Violent Criminals Does Not Reduce Reoffending

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Hooded prisoner

Research into violent offenders suggests they are less deterred by punishment than others, and that a strictly punitive approach to punishment does nothing to reduce their likelihood of reoffending.

MRI scans

Researchers from Canada and the UK scanned the brains of 32 violent offenders, finding they have abnormalities in regions of the brain associated with learning.

Each member of the group had been convicted of murder, sexual assault or assault causing grievous bodily harm and the objective seriousness of their offending conduct was considered to be at the higher end of the scale.

The group comprised 12 offenders classified as “psychopathic” and 20 “regular offenders” who had committed violent crimes. MRI scans of their brains were compared to those of 18 healthy people who did not have a history of criminality.

Whilst being subjected to the scans, participants were asked to play a game whereby they sometimes received rewards for matching cards correctly or were sometimes penalised for unsuccessful attempts.

Psychopath’s brain

The researchers drew from previous findings that around one in five violent offenders can be classified as psychopaths, who exhibit different responses to regular offenders.

According to the co-leader of the study, Nigel Blackwood, “Psychopathic offenders are different from regular criminals in many ways… Regular criminals are hyper-responsive to threat, quick-tempered and aggressive, while psychopaths have a very low response to threats, are cold, and their aggressively is premeditated.”

The study found that when the game stopped rewarding card-matching and started punishing errors, the neural pathway in psychopaths involved in learning from punishment exhibited abnormalities “in both grey matter and specific white matter fibre tracts,” Sheilagh Hodgins, one of the lead researchers found. These abnormalities were higher than the regular offender group, and far higher than the non-offender group.

Grey matter, Ms Hodgins explained, is involved with processing information and cognition, while white matter coordinates the flow of information between different regions of the brain.

The researchers concluded that psychopaths only consider the positive consequences of their actions, and ignore any potential negatives rather than learn from them.

So unlike most people, psychopaths do not learn from their mistakes or see punishment as a deterrent.

Early intervention

The researchers believe testing can enable psychopaths to be identified at an early age, potentially allowing for early intervention in troubled children.

“Since most violent crimes are committed by men who display conduct problems from a young age, learning-based interventions that target the specific brain mechanisms underlying this behaviour pattern and thereby change the behaviour would significantly reduce violent crime,” explained Ms Hodgins.

Punishment versus reward-based approach

The study found that although psychopathy cannot be “cured”, and despite punishment having little or no effect on the conduct of psychopaths, rewards-based approaches can lead to behavioural changes which may ultimately reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

According the researchers, such models can also make it easier to manage psychopaths in the prison setting; reducing the likelihood of violent conduct behind bars. Consistently rewarding good behaviour with privileges such as television, games and work privileges may – the researcher hypothesised – bring about long term behavioural changes.

Indeed, a later study titled “Rehab for Psychopaths” similarly found that a rewards-based, therapeutic approach is the most likely to reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

Specialised therapy

In a Canadian study, psychologist Mark Oliver found that rates of violent crimes after release from prison fell by 30 percent or more among psychopathic offenders who complete intensive, therapeutic group programs.

The programs focused on cognitive behavioural therapy, whereby offenders were taught how to control anger whilst still feeling in control. The courses lasted an average of eight to nine months.

A portion of the study involved 321 male sex offenders, 29 percent of whom were classified as psychopathic. Of those who completed the treatment (roughly 75 percent), 60 per cent were arrested for violent crimes within 10 years of release, whereas 92 percent of those who did not complete the program were arrested.

And in a seven-­year follow­ up of 32 treated and 32 untreated violent, psychopathic offenders, treated men spent an average of 2.4 fewer years in prison for new offences than untreated men. By Mr Oliver’s calculations, that reduction in prison time would save more than $233,000 for each offender.

The research overwhelmingly suggests that the intensive, therapeutic treatment of those classified as psychopaths is in society’s financial and social interest.

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Zeb Holmes

Zeb Holmes

Zeb Holmes is a lawyer with a passion for social justice who advocates criminal law reform, and a member of the content team at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.
Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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