The Double Helix Takes The Witness Stand: The Genetic Risk Of Criminal Behaviour

The Scales of Justice on top of the Old Bailey in London. Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

The genes did it.

We’re at the point where scientists will soon be able to point to a gene sequence and say that person is at increased risk of criminal behaviour.

And that may influence a court as to the degree of guilt and mitigating circumstances.

Such research has potential to help courts with some of the difficult decisions but it also brings a risk of misinterpretation and misuse within the legal system.

Addressing these issues will be of important for upholding principles of justice and fairness, according to an essay published in the journal Neuron from Cell Press.

“Genetic evidence, properly used, could assist with judgments regarding appropriate criminal punishments, causes of injury or disability, and other questions before the courts,” says author Paul Appelbaum, who directs Columbia University’s Center for Research on Ethical, Legal and Social Implications of Psychiatric, Neurologic and Behavioral Genetics.

Genetic evidence is being offered in criminal trials to suggest that defendants have diminished understanding of or control over their behaviour, most often in arguments for mitigating sentences.

“The complexity of genetic information and our incomplete understanding of the roots of behaviour raise the possibility that genetic evidence will be misused or misunderstood,” says Dr. Appelbaum

“Hence, care is needed in evaluating the extent to which genetic evidence may have something to add to legal proceedings in a given case.”

Some of the questions: To what extent do specific genetic variants make it more difficult to understand or control one’s behaviour and what are the biological mechanisms involved? Also, how can we respond to individuals with genetic predispositions to criminal behaviour to diminish the risk of recidivism?

Dr. Appelbaum says it will be an ongoing challenge for both legal and genetic experts to monitor the use of genetic data in courts to ensure the conclusions drawn faithfully reflect the science.

Without the right information, judges and juries may overestimate or underestimate the conclusions which can be drawn from genetic evidence.

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