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Dr. James Tabery, University of Utah – The Psychology of Sentencing

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. James Tabery of the University of Utah explains how a psychological diagnosis of a defendant can influence the length of their sentence if convicted.

James Tabery is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Utah where his research focuses largely on the philosophy of science and applied ethics, as well as the intersection between the two. He investigates questions of causation and explanation in biology and asks how the answers to those questions have ethical, legal, and social implications. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh.

About Dr. Tabery

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Dr. James Tabery – The Psychology of Sentencing

Scientific evidence about the causes of antisocial behavior is becoming increasingly common in the courtroom. Genetic tests for genes associated with antisocial personality disorder and neuroimaging scans of purportedly psychopathic brains have both been introduced in trials to affect the sentencing of convicted criminals.  

The presence of such scientific evidence raises a question: Which way will it cut? Will it decrease punishment because the evidence is interpreted to suggest that the criminal is less responsible for his actions? Or will it increase punishment because the evidence is interpreted to suggest that the criminal poses a continued threat to society? This is the double-edged sword of the science of bad behavior: the same exact scientific evidence could either increase or decrease punishment.  

In order to test the blades of the double-edged sword, Lisa Aspinwall, Teneille Brown, and I performed a nationwide experiment involving US trial court judges. All the judges received the same details concerning a crime of aggravated battery. Half the judges were told only that the convict was a diagnosed psychopath, while the other half received this diagnosis of psychopathy as well as additional scientific evidence concerning the biological causes of psychopathy. We then asked all the judges to evaluate and sentence the criminal. The judges who received the additional evidence concerning biological causes of psychopathy sentenced the criminal to approximately 13 years in prison, one year less than the judges who received only the diagnosis of psychopathy. Still, both of these sentences were significantly higher than the 9 years that the judges said was their average sentence for cases of aggravated battery. In our study, the double-edged sword did indeed cut both ways.


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