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April 12th, 2007


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12:42 pm - Musings in society and justice
This article about a British program to deal with and attempt to treat repeat, violent criminals deals with a problem that is vital, and much ignored in the US, finding a way to construct a society that is both humane and safe.
All societies contain a few extremely violent individuals, who are either psychopaths or have a related severe personality disorder. With no concern about the harm they inflict, little can be done to change their behaviour, psychiatrists say.
I've studied sufficient amounts of history and anthropology to definitely agree with these conclusions. Most people commit crimes because of economic need (and the accompanying desperation and hopelessness) or because laws (like the various narcotics prohibitions) are ultimately foolish and wrong. However, when you subtract all of those factors, you are still left with a fair number of crimes committed by people who simply have both poor impulse control and far fewer internal limits on committing violence than most of the population. The question is what to do with such people. The death penalty is both utterly barbaric and highly problematic in cases where someone later turns out to be innocent, while prison is simultaneously brutal, vastly wasteful, and an excellent way to turn more minor offenders into career criminals.

Obviously one risk is that psychological criteria will be used to stigmatize and potentially even incarcerate people with no history of violence, but that sort of vileness seems unlikely nations with laws that actually protect individual's freedom (sadly, a list of such nations does not include the US). However, I can definitely see intervening in the cases of violent criminals who meet certain psychological criteria. Also, the focus on treatment in the article is especially promising.
About 130 people who have committed serious violent offences are enrolled in the DSPD programme, which is based in specialist units at two prisons and two secure hospitals. It should eventually include 300 subjects, and the programme's success will be evaluated by a team led by Tom Burns and Jenny Yiend of the University of Oxford. They will examine subjects' attitudes, emotional regulation, and other factors that can vary with treatment, to estimate the risk of further violent offences. Burns and Yiend expect to have initial results by 2009.

One DSPD treatment project in particular, which specifically focuses on psychopaths, is attracting interest from forensic psychiatrists. Psychopaths at a specialist unit within Frankland prison in Durham, UK, are being subjected to the most intensive treatment plan yet devised. Known as Chromis, it employs individual and group therapy to try to shift ingrained patterns of thought and behaviour. Rather than just relying on short sessions of therapy, it recruits the entire staff of the unit to turn prisoners' lives into a continuous exercise in cognitive-behavioural therapy.
I've heard of progress being made with everything from directed counseling of this sort to drugs, to nutritional therapy to correct chronic deficiencies, and have no idea what will work. However, such studies are especially important because in the US, recent studies have shown that half of the prison population have significant mental health problems.

As a progressive technocrat, my hope ultimate is that it will be possible in some fashion to cure such problems and then return the person to society with a clean bill of health. Then again, as I have said before when discussing the death penalty, I have absolutely no use for vengeance and think it is unworthy of a civilized society to base all or even part of it's justice system on such an idea.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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From:slothman
Date:April 12th, 2007 08:00 pm (UTC)
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Have you read The Madness of Adam and Eve, by David Horrobin? It’s an interesting book on the evolutionary biology of schizophrenia, which examines the role of fatty glial cells in our brains and speculates that we developed our unusual amount of those while living on the seashore and dining on fish or other animals that ate a lot of fish, and that the omega-3 fatty acids that one can get in fish oil are important for proper mental function. He cites a study where they added omega-3 supplements to the diet of prisoners for a period of time, and there was a measurable decline in outbreaks of violence. I wonder how many crimes could be prevented by doing some genetic testing and giving a child’s parents coupons for nutritional supplements...
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From:heron61
Date:April 12th, 2007 08:04 pm (UTC)
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Interesting. I'm fairly certain that humans did not evolve on the seashore (having none of the salt-water adaptations one would expect. However, it looks increasingly likely that humanity evolved on the shore of the large freshwater lakes that used to cover part of East Africa, so the results end up being similar. In any case, I haven't read that book, but I've heard of reports containing similar data. A mixture of counseling (since it's definitely clear that violence can also become a habit) and various forms of therapy might be exceedingly successful at helping people learn to be less violent.
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From:onyxrising
Date:April 13th, 2007 03:17 am (UTC)
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Out of curiosity, do you know of anywhere that would have a copy in stock? Our local library does not, nor does Amazon.com. I should like to read it.
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From:slothman
Date:April 13th, 2007 03:53 am (UTC)
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I originally discovered it from a review in The Economist, it may still be available overseas... looks like it’s still available from Amazon.co.uk.
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From:onyxrising
Date:April 13th, 2007 03:56 am (UTC)
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But are they willing to ship from civilization over to here, or is that not something amazon.com likes to do? I have yet to have occassion to attempt obtaining something they have.
[User Picture]
From:slothman
Date:April 13th, 2007 04:04 am (UTC)
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I regularly order books and music from amazon.co.uk, and have never had any trouble.
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From:onyxrising
Date:April 13th, 2007 04:07 am (UTC)
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This is a gleeful discovery. Thankyou.
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From:heron61
Date:April 13th, 2007 05:00 am (UTC)
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I also regularly order books from amazon.co.uk, and not only have had no trouble, but sometimes things arrive even faster than ordering it from amazon here.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:April 12th, 2007 09:06 pm (UTC)
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This could easily be abused, and certainly would in the US. A friend of mine, who is an American, actually got locked up in an English mental ward. This guy was big and scary-looking, but the only thing bad he did was be very drunk in public. He got institutionalized for some time.

[User Picture]
From:rhiannasilel
Date:April 12th, 2007 09:31 pm (UTC)
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Speaking to someone from the UK, the story you are hearing is highly unlikely. In general, they have a policy of putting people back in the community as quickly as possible and use visiting nurses to assist with medication, etc. Most of the larger mental hospitals are, in fact, closing over there in favor of this type of model. Also keep in mind that if he was an American it's very unlikely they would have kept him in an NHS run mental ward at the expensive of their country. It's far more likely they would have contacted the embassy and sent him home.
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From:rhiannasilel
Date:April 12th, 2007 09:38 pm (UTC)
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I think this really sounds like a great plan. Punishment in and of itself does not work, you need to have other goals and other things in mind besides this Protestant idea of punishing people for their sins, for lack of a better term.

I do think there will always be a minority of individuals who cannot be cured, but that's really the case with any kind of illness, mental or otherwise. In the case of extremely violent offenders who either can't be cured or won't be cured as the case may be then it may well be more humane for everyone to keep them incarcerated. I do think this would, ultimately, be a very small minority (probably less than 1% of repeat violent offenders). For the rest, they are at least being given a chance to be treated and helped rather than punished for being a criminal long after their jail time is up and then thrown out on the streets and be expected to just contribute wihtout the skills to contribute to society.

On a side note, I think part of the problem with repeat offenders in the US may well be the fact that it's nearly impossible for ex cons to ever get a decent job, even if they made a mistake when they were say 18 or 19 years old, they're still paying for it when they're in their 40's and 50's. To me, this is a form of double jeopardy. If you can never get a good job because you're a convicted felon how can you ever really be expected to take up a new leaf and change?
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:April 12th, 2007 10:06 pm (UTC)
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I do think there will always be a minority of individuals who cannot be cured, but that's really the case with any kind of illness, mental or otherwise. In the case of extremely violent offenders who either can't be cured or won't be cured as the case may be then it may well be more humane for everyone to keep them incarcerated. I do think this would, ultimately, be a very small minority (probably less than 1% of repeat violent offenders). For the rest, they are at least being given a chance to be treated and helped rather than punished for being a criminal long after their jail time is up and then thrown out on the streets and be expected to just contribute wihtout the skills to contribute to society.

Most definitely. I think that there will always be a small number of criminally violent people who simply aren't safe to let free, but I also think those numbers will prove to be quite small and also that even the most horrible and violent people deserve to be incarcerated in humane conditions that also insure that they cannot harm other offenders.

On a side note, I think part of the problem with repeat offenders in the US may well be the fact that it's nearly impossible for ex cons to ever get a decent job, even if they made a mistake when they were say 18 or 19 years old, they're still paying for it when they're in their 40's and 50's. To me, this is a form of double jeopardy. If you can never get a good job because you're a convicted felon how can you ever really be expected to take up a new leaf and change?

Gods yes, that is an incredibly serious problem, right along with denying felons (most of whom were guilty of drug-related offenses, which shouldn't be crimes in the first place) the right to vote. Lots of reforms need to be made in dealing with people who have been released from prison.
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From:rhiannasilel
Date:April 13th, 2007 12:26 am (UTC)
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You'd think that they would have learned the first time they tried prohibition, but apparently not. So long as they treat drug related offenses as a criminal issue rather than a medical issue you're going to have revolving door prisons. The misclassification of the drugs themselves also leads to a host of problems, as well. When you lie to children about the effects of marijuana they're very likely to think that you're lying about the effects of other drugs as well.

I also think you can't put people into these boxes and say they're an adult at such and such an age or they're not an adult at another age. I've seen 16 year olds that completely have their shit together and I've seen 30 and 40 year olds that don't. 18 and 19 year olds are often very much still teenagers and I don't think they're always totally aware of the consequences of some of their actions. To punish them, essentially for life, for something they did that was probably just a dumb kid mistake is just wrong. When I think about the multitude of things that I did when I was that age and was simply lucky enough not to get caught and have it impact the rest of my life it's frightening. Had I actually been caught I would not be able to get money for student loans or financial aid (look at the section of the FAFSA where it asks if you have been convicted of a drug related offense), wouldn't be able to vote, and likely would not have been able to work my way into the type of work I do today. Where would that leave me? Essentially yet another single parent on minimum wage barely making it (if making it at all). It's scary.
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From:onyxrising
Date:April 13th, 2007 03:20 am (UTC)
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I recall when reading Frank Abagnale Jr.'s autobiography that he had several jobs, when just out of prison. In those jobs, they didn't background check him until, in short order due to his excellent work, he was up for promotion. And then he was suddenly canned.
I recall in highschool doing a paper on legislation in the US regarding cybercrime. Many of the judges sentence inmates for those to, after their release, not be allowed to touch a computer for X many years. Unfortunately, many judges seem to feel "computer" includes everything up to and including the cash register at a McDonalds. (Yes, I did find case studies which included people not being able to work at McDonalds because of such)
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From:onyxrising
Date:April 13th, 2007 03:14 am (UTC)
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Have you ever read Inside the Criminal Mind or anything about the work of Dr. Yochelson? Becuase if you haven't, we have a copy of the aforementioned book, and you need to read it on that matter.
The bit they're mentioning is reminiscent of Dr. Yochelsen's approach, but they really don't say enough to determine whether or not it's the same thing. (Dr. Yochelson, for reference, is considered to have been highly successful.)
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From:heron61
Date:April 13th, 2007 06:28 am (UTC)
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Interesting, I've not seen it and would be interested in looking at it.

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