There are many good reasons for revisiting laws that make it too easy to try children as adults, the best being perhaps that it leads to higher recidivism rates when youth are released. Youth tried as adults are more likely to commit crimes upon release, they commit them sooner and their crimes are more violent. But another reason is that it creates too big a punishment gap between juvenile and adult court, a gap which gives prosecutors too much power to coerce guilty pleas from innocent suspects. One way to solve this problem is to take the decision of whether to transfer a minor out of the hands of prosecutors (whose decisions are unreviewable) and place it into the hands of judges. For those who are still transferred, the idea of “youth discounts” for juveniles sentenced in adult court, an automatic reduction of sentences for juvenile offenders which makes the court take their youth as a mitigating factor, is critical in reducing the punishment gap between juvenile and adult court, a gap which gives prosecutors too much power in plea negotiations and gives too strong an incentive for innocents to plead guilty. Such discounts would also except juveniles from life without parole, mandatory minimum sentences, and “truth in sentencing” schemes which have exacerbated the punishment gap between juvenile and adult sentencing. For juveniles sent to adult court, there must also be an opportunity to send the juvenile back to the court for trial sentencing — “a reverse waiver” option.
Twenty-five years ago, a group of psychologically healthy, normal college students (and several presumably mentally sound experimenters) were temporarily but dramatically transformed in the course of six days spent in a prison-like environment, in research that came to be known as the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE).
The outcome of that study was shocking and unexpected to us, our professional colleagues, and the general public. Otherwise emotionally strong college students who were randomly assigned to be mock-prisoners suffered acute psychological trauma and breakdowns. Some of the students begged to be released from the intense pains of less than a week of merely simulated imprisonment, whereas others adapted by becoming blindly obedient to the unjust authority of the guards.
The guards, too—who also had been carefully chosen on the basis of their normal–average scores on a variety of personality measures—quickly internalized their randomly assigned role. Many of these seemingly gentle and caring young men, some of whom had described themselves as pacifists or Vietnam War “doves,” soon began mistreating their peers and were indifferent to the obvious suffering that their actions produced. Several of them devised sadistically inventive ways to harass and degrade the prisoners, and none of the less actively cruel mock-guards ever intervened or complained about the abuses they witnessed. Most of the worst prisoner treatment came on the night shifts and other occasions when the guards thought they could avoid the surveillance and interference of the research team.
Our planned two-week experiment had to be aborted after only six days because the experience dramatically and painfully transformed most of the participants in ways we did not anticipate, prepare for, or predict.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Haney, C., Banks, W., & Zimbardo, P. (1973). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69–97.
Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry
Department of Psychiatry
Columbia University Medical Center
Seminar series on Legal and Ethical Issues in Psychiatry and General Medicine
Liwen Grace Lee, MD
Medical Director, Division of Forensic Services
NYS Office of Mental Health
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry
College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University
Insanity Acquittees in New York State
Tuesday, January 12th, 2009
Although the insanity defense intermittently attracts considerable public attention, the process that begins after a successful insanity plea is often less understood. State systems seek to balance clinical needs with public safety and individual civil liberties. The New York system of insanity acquittee management will be described and the implications of the process discussed.