What makes formulation and understanding of the law and the judicial system so
challenging is that it demands knowledge and application of a wide array of
disciplines. Understanding why a person commits a crime is one of the most
important aspects of the investigative, governmental, and judicial fields.
It is vital to discern that punishing all types of offenders the same way is not
an efficient way to control crime. Each criminal has a different reason for
perpetrating a crime. Crime control can be achieved only when the concepts of
behavioural science and criminology are used as guidelines for devising penal
laws for criminals.
Psychopathy remains one of the most abstruse mental disorders to understand.
There are multifarious mistaken beliefs about this disease, which affect the
legal proceedings against those who suffer from the disorder. This study aims to
shed light on who psychopaths are, whether they should be given punishment or
therapy and how a couple of western countries deal with them. The goal is also
to give suggestions that would kindle sentience regarding psychopathy.
Introduction to Psychopathy
Psychopathy, known as Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) in the APA
guidebook is a disorder that is linked to the dysfunction of the orbitofrontal
cortex of the brain and causes a person to be unable to experience deep emotions
or regret and lack morals and conscience. Being selfish, manipulative, and self-centred
are also some traits that such people have. This mental disorder affects 1-3%
of the total world population, howbeit, they make up around 20-30% of people in
One of the prominent misconceptions regarding psychopaths is that they commit
extreme and violent crimes such as serial killing to experience excitement and
thrill without feeling any guilt or remorse. However, most of them are not
berserk criminals. Generally, psychopaths are impulsive, do not keep up to their
social or professional commitments, tend to borrow money or items and not return
them and commit petty thefts.
Criminal Responsibility of PsychopathsIn order to convict a person, it is important to acknowledge:
- If the wrongful act was carried out by the accused (known as Actus Reas)
- If the accused was in a guilty state of mind, that is, perpetrated the
wrongful act intentionally (known as Mens Rea)
The Indian judicial system follows the maxim “actus non facit reum nisi men
sit rea”, which means that an act does not make a person guilty unless the
said act is performed with a guilty mind.
It is to be noted that in the case of psychopaths mens rea is absent as they are
not capable of having it. Their actions are not a result of a guilty mind but
their mental disorder.
Punishment v. Therapy
Offenders are punished by law to induce fear in their minds and prevent them
from committing a similar act in the future. However, a case study conducted by
Lancet Psychiatry in 2015 found that psychopaths process punishments and even
rewards differently than the rest of the population. Sheilagh Hodgins, one of
the authors of the study, observed that psychopaths are not only different on
the basis of brain function, but brain structure as well. Even when asked to do
simple tasks, dramatic contrasts were observed in the MRI results.
The study determined that psychopaths are over-optimists. They believe that
their actions will always be rewarded and do not think about punishment, which
hinders them from determining if their behaviour is inappropriate. Another
author of the study, Nigel Blackwood stated in a press release that the
psychopaths failed to learn from the punishments given to change their behaviour
when they completed neuropsychological tasks and made poorer decisions although
the periods of deliberation were longer.
As per the legal procedure, an accused party is subjected to clinical tests and
psychiatric tests in cases where the party appears to lack mens rea. However,
the issue with psychopaths is that they seem mentally fit for trials.
Furthermore, they tend to accept their crime without overtly showing any remorse
and are hence a great many times considered to be heinous criminals with no
feeling of contrition by the court. Therefore, observation of such behaviour in
an accused should be immediately acknowledged and be subjected to psychological
and medical assessments to confirm the mental condition of the offender.
The emphasis on the treatment of psychopathic criminals was made by Robert D.
Hare and his associates in 1999. They devised a set of diagnostic ideas after
being influenced by Hervey Cleckleys observations. The list of behaviours and
personality traits was named Psychopathy Checklist (PCL). Robert Hares study
suggested that some behaviour can change with age and intervention by someone
may redirect a psychopaths behaviour.
Therapeutic Approach in Other Countries
Countries such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom have
already framed laws that not only identify psychopaths but also prescribe
measures to deal with them appropriately.
The laws of England and Wales align themselves in conformity with the fact that
the behaviour of psychopaths stems from their mental abnormality. Thus, it
was deemed beneficial to expose them to therapy and rehabilitation centres
rather than punishing them.
Therapeutic Communities such as the Henderson Hospital were established after
the second world war to treat people with personality disorders. There are
special prisons such as Her Majesty Prison in Grendon Underwood and
high-security hospitals like Broadmoor, Rampton and Ashworth that deal with
those who suffer from severe psychological issues and pose a high threat to
society, also known as Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorder (DSPD)
A number of states in the United States have enacted laws to specifically manage
psychopaths. The state legislature of Washington introduced the terms
Psychopathic Personality and Sexual Psychopath. The Sentencing Reform Act of
1984, part of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, 1984 was passed by both
houses of Congress which established the United States Sentencing Commission to
articulate sentencing guidelines for the federal courts.
The state of California enacted the Psychopathic Offender Law in 1939. In the
same year, Minnesota enacted the Psychopathic Personality Law which indefinitely
commits dangerous offenders to the Department of Human Service for treatment in
highly secure facilities.
In 1995, California along with various other states passed special statutes
related to Psychopaths. These allow the states to retain custody of the
psychopathic offenders until their mental illness is treated. This allows the
authorities to confine them sine die and often, for their whole life.
Psychopathy is a complex mental disorder caused due to dysfunction of parts of
the brain which causes them to have different brain structures and functions
from the general population. Not all psychopaths commit heinous crimes such as
serial murder, but sometimes they can commit dangerous crimes though there is no
mens rea behind their actions. The lack of conscience and remorse stems from
their mental illness which causes a lack of understanding of reward and
The Indian judicial system believes that a guilty act is not enough to convict a
person if there is a lack of guilty mind
Although the courts order psychological assessments in cases where the absence
of mens rea is suspected, psychopaths often admit to their crimes and do not
express guilt either overtly or covertly which leads to them being convicted as
normal criminals. In such cases, the disease should be identified and treated
A therapeutic approach should be opted for instead of punishment because
psychopaths are themselves victims of their minds. Countries like the USA and
the UK already follow this approach.
The main issue is the unawareness and misconceptions that surround the topic of
Psychopathy and psychological disorders in general. Therefore, it is necessary
to educate people especially those involved in the enforcement and
interpretation of the law to sensitize them towards this worriment from the
Training programs should be launched for the police and subjects related to how
mental illness can cause deviance in people should be included in the syllabus
of law and related fields. Visits to mental asylums, interviews with
psychiatrists and mentally ill offenders should be made part of the higher
education system. Launching short-term or online certificate courses in
institutes such as IGNOU and SOL-DU can also aid the process of raising
awareness on this issue and possibly undo the demonisation of this mental
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