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Criminals with genetic mental disorders are judged harsher

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COLUMBIA, Mo. -- (10/10/2017) Criminal offenders with genetic mental disorders are judged more negatively while in court according to a Mizzou study.

Two professors at the university completed a study finding that offenders with genetic mental disorders that predispose them to criminal behavior are judged more negatively than mentally disordered offenders whose criminal behavior may have been caused by environmental factors, such as childhood abuse.

“We are used to thinking that if people who commit criminal acts suffer from a mental disorder, then that should be taken into account when assigning blame and punishment for their crimes,” said Philip Robins, an associate professor of philosophy in the MU College of Arts and Science.

Robins stated throughout their study him and Paul Litton, a professor in the MU School of Law wanted to determine if it mattered why and how defendants acquired those mental disorders, and how that might affect the way society assigns blame and punishment when a crime is committed. 

Litton and Robbins conducted two surveys with up to 600 participants. Their results confirmed that if the cause of a mental disorder was genetic, study participants tended to assign more blame and harsher punishment for the crime compared to cases in which the individual had a mental disorder that was not genetic in origin. 

The professors expected to find that different environmental explanations would elicit different judgments from those being surveyed. For example, they predicted that mitigation would be greater for someone who developed a mental disorder due to childhood abuse compared to someone whose mental disorder resulted purely by accident, such as falling off a bike.

“Our theory was that people who have been intentionally harmed by caregivers are seen as more victim-like than people who have suffered accidents,” Robbins said.

He believed that if this was so, intentional harm should be associated with less negative moral judgment than non-intentional harm. However, we found that whether the harm was intentional or accidental, it didn’t affect judgments of blame or punishment.”

Robbins states that the reasoning behind this, is that with a genetically caused mental disorder, there is no pre-existing person who has been harmed, so the offender is not seen as a victim. In the environmental cases, the offender is seen as a victim. 

However, their study adds to empirical research for defense attorneys to consider when constructing their case for a more lenient sentence. The findings suggest that presenting evidence of severe childhood abuse suffered by an individual will be more effective than explaining the crime in genetic terms.

The professor finds this finding very surprising. He says further research will be required to determine why there is no difference between intentional and unintentional causes of harm.

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