Our Prison System Is Our De Facto Mental Health Care System

Estimates are that a third of the prison population has mental illness. 

Our Prison System Is Our De Facto Mental Health Care System

A lot of my current work has to do with the intersection of neuroscience and the legal system.  I direct the Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law and the idea is how does modern neuroscience navigate the way we think about criminal punishment and behavior and structuring incentives and what we’re doing as a society. 


It turns out it’s such a rich area that, as I’m mining around in there, it’s hard not to strike gold everywhere you look.  Essentially, the problem is, in this country especially, we incarcerate everyone.  America has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  As far as the percentage of our population behind bars, we beat every other country in the world.  It’s a totally broken system because that's criminogenic, meaning it leads to more crime.  When you break somebody’s social circles and employment opportunities, you’re making it really likely they’re going to end up back there.  

There's so much more that we can be doing given the understanding we have of the biological basis of behavior.  We can help rehabilitate.  We can modulate sentencing in a rational way.  We don't have to treat everyone like they all have to go to jail with some mandatory sentencing. 

There are lots of things we can do to help.  We can split off mental health courts.  We can split off drug courts, juvenile courts from the main court system, so that we have some refinement in what we’re doing. 

As it stands now, the estimates are that a third of the prison population has mental illness, which means that our prison system has become our de facto mental health care system.  And aside from the humanity that we might discuss about that, it’s not effective in terms of the utility of solving any problems, and it’s not an effective cost. 

So it turns out that there are lots of things that we take as we get a better understanding of how brains are different and how we can help.  We can take that stuff directly to the legal system. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Were the ancient Egyptians black or white? Scientists now know

This is the first successful DNA sequencing on ancient Egyptian mummies, ever.

 

Ancient Egyptian Statues

Getty Images
Surprising Science

Egyptologists, writers, scholars, and others, have argued the race of the ancient Egyptians since at least the 1970's. Some today believe they were Sub-Saharan Africans. We can see this interpretation portrayed in Michael Jackson's 1991 music video for “Remember the Time" from his "Dangerous" album. The video, a 10-minute mini-film, includes performances by Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson.

Keep reading Show less

Why professional soccer players choke during penalty kicks

A new study used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure brain activity as inexperienced and experienced soccer players took penalty kicks.

PORTLAND, OREGON - MAY 09: Diego Valeri #8 of Portland Timbers reacts after missing a penalty kick in the second half against the Seattle Sounders at Providence Park on May 09, 2021 in Portland, Oregon.

Abbie Parr via Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • The new study is the first to use in-the-field imaging technology to measure brain activity as people delivered penalty kicks.
  • Participants were asked to kick a total of 15 penalty shots under three different scenarios, each designed to be increasingly stressful.
  • Kickers who missed shots showed higher activity in brain areas that were irrelevant to kicking a soccer ball, suggesting they were overthinking.
Keep reading Show less

Changing a brain to save a life: how far should rehabilitation go?

What's the difference between brainwashing and rehabilitation?

Credit: Roy Rochlin via Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • The book and movie, A Clockwork Orange, powerfully asks us to consider the murky lines between rehabilitation, brainwashing, and dehumanization.
  • There are a variety of ways, from hormonal treatment to surgical lobotomies, to force a person to be more law abiding, calm, or moral.
  • Is a world with less free will but also with less suffering one in which we would want to live?
Keep reading Show less
Surprising Science

How to fool a shark using magnets

A simple trick allowed marine biologists to prove a long-held suspicion.

Quantcast