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How A Better Understanding Of Psychology Impacts Criminal Prosecution

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The worlds of psychology and psychiatry are increasingly commingling with criminal prosecution. It wasn't that long ago when the prosecution's primary objective was usually to seek the harshest penalty allowable under the law. Today, a better understanding of the psychology behind criminal behavior has led to many prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges asking not how harshly a defendant should be punished, but whether and how they can be rehabilitated.

Here you will learn about how criminal psychology is changing the way criminals are sentenced.

The Effects of Mental Illness on Criminal Behavior

There is a growing consensus amongst experts and laymen alike that criminal behavior is often borne of mental illness, substance addiction, or both. One study found that up to 83% of property crimes, for instance, are committed by people with addictions. Many experts also believe that a risk factor for addiction is mental illness. Both substance addiction and mental illness are treatable for many people, which begs the question; should offenders not be treated for the illnesses that caused them to offend in the first place?

There is growing evidence that the goal of any criminal prosecution should be to seek the necessary treatment for the defendant, rather than to seek retribution for their offenses. This has the potential to change how criminal lawyers defend their clients and how their clients are sentenced.

The Push to Rehabilitate

When studies made it clear that criminals released from prison very frequently re-offend, criminal justice experts began to question the efficacy of the current prison system. For the last few years, such studies have demonstrated that prison time is neither a deterrent for committing first offenses, nor is it effective at preventing recidivism. If good, old-fashioned prison isn't working, what can be done?

James Gilligan, a leader in criminal psychology research, recommends rehabilitation programs focused on helping prisoners overcome the psychological problems that led to their behavior in the first place. Substance abuse rehabilitation, psychotherapy, and medical care are all part of his plan, and the lawyers, juries and judges of America are listening.

The "Affluenza" Defense

Perhaps the most visible example of new attitudes toward rehabilitation of criminals is the case of Ethan Couch. Couch was convicted in 2013 of driving drunk, which resulted in four deaths. His defense attorney argued successfully that because he was young and raised in an affluent environment without consequences for his actions that he could not have been expected to foresee such a tragedy.

The evidence, based on psychology principles, was so compelling that the judge agreed, and sentenced Couch to inpatient substance abuse treatment and 10 years of probation rather than a lengthy prison sentence. 

This sentence did not go over well with everyone, but despite its apparent laxity, James Gilligan's research seems to point to such treatment as being more effective than prison time. This important case has set a precedent that can allow criminal defense attorneys to get the treatment their clients need in order to reenter society as productive community members.

As the saying goes, when you know better you do better. Today, some criminal prosecutions are seeking to help prevent recidivism by rehabilitating criminals and solving the problem of criminal behavior at its root.

Though many courts in the country are still reluctant to see the value in rehabilitation, defense attorneys are increasingly trying to bring about meaningful change in the criminal justice system. If you or someone you love is facing criminal charges, it is worth discussing the value of rehabilitation and mental health services with the defense attorney. It may just make all the difference in the future of your community.