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March 10, 2012

"Breakthrough Science and the New Rehabilitation"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Professor Meghan J. Ryan. Here is the abstract:

Breakthroughs in pharmacology, genetics, and neuroscience are transforming how society views criminals and thus how society should respond to criminal behavior.  Although the criminal law has long been based on notions of culpability, science is undercutting the assumption that offenders are actually responsible for their criminal actions.  Further, scientific advances have suggested that criminals can be changed at the biochemical level. The public has become well aware of these advances largely due to pervasive media reporting on these issues and also as a result of the pharmaceutical industry’s incessant advertising of products designed to transform individuals by treating everything from depression to sexual dysfunction.  This public familiarity with and expectation of scientific advances has set into motion the resurrection of the penological theory of rehabilitation that has lain dormant since the mid-1970s.  The New Rehabilitation that is surfacing, however, differs in form from the rehabilitation of the earlier era by effecting change through biochemical interventions rather than through attempting to change an offender’s character.  This raises novel concerns about this New Rehabilitation that must be examined in light of the science that has sparked its revival.

March 10, 2012 at 07:16 PM | Permalink


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On one hand I'm glad to see that there are individuals in the legal profession tackling this complex issue. On the other hand, she loses a great deal of credibility when she doesn't even mention works such as "The Mismeasure of Man" by Stephen Gould of George Lucas's THX 1138 both which directly address her thesis.

Science has been abused to push various agendas ever since the scientific method was formulated. Nor is the current focus of chemical interventions anything new. People have been peddling chemical treatments to solve behavioral problems for more than 1000 years. Her paper would have been far stronger if she had seriously explored the history of such interventions. But I suspect there was a good reason not too. If would have revealed the fact that the "New Rehabilitation" is yet another fad.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 10, 2012 10:14:29 PM


This recent article from the NYT also discusses rehabilitation programs noting that one key element to better behavior is better living conditions.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 10, 2012 10:44:32 PM

Add another item to the list of feminist lawyer fictions. Modern successful treatments reduce impulsivity, and provide a chance to suppress urges to abuse drugs and alcohol.

These do not reduce responsibility. They increase it. They induce a duty in the criminal to a) seek out and accept treatment; b) comply with treatment to reduce aggressivity, and impulsivity; c) eliminate excuses to crime.

Their availability increases culpability, not reduces it. Culpability refers not to retribution, but to dangerousness and the necessity of incapacitation, the sole mature, lawful aim of the criminal law.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 11, 2012 12:45:31 AM

What a bunch of hype.

Exactly how has "scientific advances" suggested that "criminals can be changed at the biochemical level?"

Posted by: Steve | Mar 11, 2012 3:10:06 PM


Seems we are doing a good job with bees, Steve.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 11, 2012 6:44:42 PM

Steve: 1) a third of jail beds are filled by straight state hospital type patients. Someone made a ruckus on a bus screaming at imaginary tormentors. No one wants to post the $100 bail or pay the $10 fine. So we have a third of inmates being people with mental illness. Prisoners are snobs. They do not want such people in the prison. Adequate treatment can really make a difference to the level of chaos and violence in prison.

2) Ordinary criminals are impulsive, pointlessly violent, easily set off. Slow them down. Some are ultra-violent and easily set off. So, these features are amenable to medication.

3) Half the criminals and half the victims are drunk, legally. Most have drug abuse problems. These motivate much of crime to fund the high prices from the federal price supports in the War on Drugs. Giving them substitutes or meds that reduce craving will reduce crime. The most famous and oldest is methadone. It is associated with modest reductions in crimes such as burglary and robbery, and a doubling in the rate of employment.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 11, 2012 10:09:24 PM

Just another take on an old DuPont advertising slogan, "Better Things for Better Living...Through Chemistry."

Posted by: lax | Mar 12, 2012 4:38:52 PM

Nice post. I like the way you start and then conclude your thoughts. Thanks for this information .I really appreciate your work, keep it up

Posted by: Rob's Ranch | May 18, 2012 1:44:37 AM

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