With the world in shock over the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma last week, rather than questioning the morality of capital punishment, we should reevaluate America’s prison system as a whole. With an ever-growing population of inmates, America’s prisons are operating under the arcane notion that punishment deters crimes, while ignoring a growing body of scientific work that could be used to understand why people commit violent crimes and how to reinstate criminals into society successfully. On the question of what causes people to commit horrible crimes, we know that damage to the frontal lobes of the brain (the areas responsible for impulse-control, reasoning, foresight and other “higher” cognitive functions) can cause severe behavioral problems and violent outbursts.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising then, that prison inmates seem to have higher rates of brain damage. This does not mean that having brain damage absolves one of responsibility for crimes; nor does it mean that criminals with mental problems aren’t bad people. Rather, knowing that violent or criminal behavior has a mechanistic basis allows us to treat that behavior mechanistically too. The brain is a machine after all, and like all machines its parts and function can be analyzed so it can be repaired. Neuroscience gives us the toolbox to do those repairs. One promising avenue of research is on treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a form of damage to the brain that has been linked with violent outbursts. Some researchers are testing drugs that could separate a memory of an event from its emotional connotation, which one day could give peace to those troubled by their experiences.
While we may soon find biomedical routes to prevent some violent crimes, no crime prevention strategy is perfect. So, we should have a plan for what to do with people who do commit crimes. Our current system works on the idea that prison punishment is a way to deter convicts and would-be criminals from committing future crimes. The data tells us that this approach doesn’t work: according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2005 and 2010, 76% of released prisoners in 30 states had been arrested for new crimes. It doesn’t take brain science to recognize that in some way or another, our justice system is failing. We know that a part of the problem is that people getting out of prison aren’t welcomed by society; their opportunities for an honest and prosperous life are greatly reduced by the fact that they have criminal records. On the other hand, a high rate of recidivism is a sign that time in prison could be better spent. Science comes in when we start asking what type of educational methods work best for prisoners to lead productive lives. Experiments on prisoners should be done by scientists with the goal of finding best strategies for behavioral modification rather than by prison officials looking for new sources of lethal drugs.
For some convicts though, re-education may not be in the cards. Killers and child rapists like Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner were sentenced to death for their crimes. The purpose of capital punishment is in part to deter people from committing horrible crimes. Does it work? U.S. states that do not have the death penalty tend to have lower homicide rates than those that do. Notably, these data are correlative; they do not mean that the link is causative. One prominent study used more intricate statistics to come to the conclusion that the death penalty does have a deterrent effect – the authors estimate that every execution prevents 3-18 homicides. If we accept their argument and agree that capital punishment deters violent crime, we still have to ask if we want, as a society, to be in the business of killing people. Just because it works, does not mean it is what we should be doing. What if a scientific study shows that torturing people to death deters crime even more than a quick painless death? What if an agonizing death like Clayton Lockett’s prevents the next thousand would-be murders?
This is where science stops being useful. We can use statistics to measure complex patterns and neuroscience to explain and modify the mechanics of behavior, but science does not tell us how to use its conclusions. Deciding whether torturing criminals in order to deter future crime is a moral judgment that we have to make.