History Fragments: Brain Scans, Law, and Crime

Pauline Newman: But one of the more chilling uses of brain scans could be outside the courts and even before people have committed a crime. When it comes to protecting vulnerable populations like children from possible perpetrators, can we ever dare take chances? Emily Murphy.

Emily Murphy: I think that research in that area if it continues to be pushed forward might be one particular area where that’s really taken up in the public. Anybody who works with children even in a volunteer capacity in hospital are screened for any sort of strange behaviour but particularly criminal backgrounds. And the screening is very intense, it’s not necessarily a big step then to add a scan in.

Pauline Newman: But a scan would be predictive and someone might not have ever done anything wrong in their lives.

Emily Murphy: That’s entirely true and that’s going to be a very difficult issue to deal with.

Pauline Newman: But then the possibility arises of maybe changing people’s brains if we know they have tendencies.

Emily Murphy: Absolutely, there are technologies and drugs out there that are already able to do that. The forced use of those technologies is something which we haven’t yet encountered to my knowledge but is definitely on the agenda.

Pauline Newman: Horrifying as that scenario sounds, could the tools and techniques of neuroscience prevent crimes before they occur? Could it make our streets safer, and even empty the jails? Gary Marchant.

Gary Marchant: That’s one thing these kinds of technologies could leave to, maybe a more happier outcome is basically to change our criminal system from being a legal and a punishment system to more of a medical system. If we can either treat people who have committed crimes or even better, anticipate people who have these problems and treat them ahead of time to avoid these terrible tragedies – for primarily the victims but also the people who commit them – that would be a really positive result. But of course it raises all kinds of difficult issues of privacy, of free will, and free choice if we’re going to start intervening before people commit crimes. And that raises a lot of sort of science-fiction scenarios that may not be that far away.

Mind Reading: Neuroscience in the Witness Stand, All In The Mind, 23rd June 2007

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July 13, 2007