By Richard Althouse, Ph.D.




Aristotle: "Law is reason, absent passion. "


Aristotle reportedly once said, "Law is reason, absent passion.” Applying Aristotle’s notion to America’s legal system, it is easy to understand why we persist in pursuing our highly punitive, costly, but questionably effective efforts at managing crime and illicit drug use. Our criminal justice system is driven more by passion than reason.


While there have been on-going public debates over the years by politicians regarding the necessity and success of their "war on crimes” effort in managing crime in the interests of public safety, other experts have been generally in agreement that these efforts have not been very successful. Consider the following: Despite the increasing threats of punishment, over 20 million property and violent crimes occur annually, approximately 60 percent of which are not reported to the police. Despite our death penalty, there is a homicide about every 30 minutes, usually by shooting. Of every 1000 felonies, only 15 percent lead to an arrest, only one percent lead to a conviction, and only 1.5 percent result in incarceration. The annual cost of our criminal justice system? $260 billion of taxpayers’ money.


Despite President Nixon’s declaring America’s war on drugs back in the l970s, by 2010, over 26 million Americans aged 12 or over used illicit drugs, 3 million for the first time, and 7 million Americans used medical drugs for nonmedical reasons. Ironically, despite tough antidrug penalties, some notable politicians, including President Obama, have admitted using the very drugs whose use these laws have prohibited. So much for deterrence. The current annual cost of the war on drugs? Over $51 billionof taxpayers’ money.


So it is not surprising that Barkan and Bryjak wonder if, taking everything into account, our thirty years of war on crime and drugs have been worth it. Their conclusion is very pointed: "No” (p. 13).


Even more puzzling to me is this. Their conclusion is not revelatory. For at least a decade, if not longer, criminal justice experts have claimed that our "get tougher on crime” legislation was becoming increasingly costly to implement without convincing evidence of substantive effects on reducing overall crime rates, suggesting that our ship of criminal justice was headed for some very serious rocks unless it changed course. As we know, it did not. If anything, it increased speed.

America’s criminal justice system: hijacked by our social amygdala?

Neuroscientists could easily argue that our generally punitive, increasingly costly, but questionably effective, criminal justice efforts are primarily the result of our legislators’ frontal lobes being hijacked by our social amygdala, the little part of our brain that, along with our thalamus and larger limbic system, is central to our anger and fear responses in the face of perceived threat. The result is a criminal justice system driven more by passion—fear, anger, anxiety-- than reason. While the limbic system has projections into our orbital frontal cortex in which evaluations ordinarily occur, our more primitive brain areas (e.g., the thalamus) have a deeper instinctual and somewhat disinhibiting effect on later developing brain mechanisms since their primary purpose has been to help us to assess and move quickly out of danger in the face of threat. Any of us who have tried to think and problem-solve clearly and dispassionately when angry, fearful, or highly anxious, know it is very difficult, if not impossible. In neurological circles this result is referred to as being "hijacked by our amygdala.” Under this circumstance, it is very difficult to be "smart” on crime when our neural responses to crime—either real or imagined--engage our more fundamental fear, anger, and anxiety neural networks that call for action absent reflection.


Social contagion?


Such hijackings can lead to social contagion, leading to far-reaching sociopolitical responses to crimes that may seem to address the cause(s) of our distress in the short run, but upon later reflection and objective analysis reveal disastrous longer-term consequences. Unfortunately, for the same reasons, it also can lead to greater difficulty acknowledging emotionally-driven mistakes in judgment later on. For example, although there is ample evidence that neither punishment nor the death penalty do not serve as effective deterrents, in a recent 2010 poll, 60 percent of those polled thought the courts in their area did not deal harshly enough with criminals, and more than two-thirds favored the death penalty of those convicted of murder (Barken and Bryjak, 2014).


Is it possible to change our brains to do better here? According to Daniel Amen, yes, although it is not easy. However, until we learn how to change our brains in the interests of better management of our emotional responses to crime in the interests of public safety, it is easy to conclude that our brand of criminal justice will continue to founder on the rocks of passion, absent reason, costing us more and more for less and less.


To learn more about this process, feel free to attend my presentation on "Why is Reentry so Hard: the Role of Implicit Cognitions” at the MHCC.


comments powered by Disqus