Could there be a Third Way for Criminal Psychopaths?
Last week, Steven Farrow was convicted of murdering a grandmother and a vicar. 77 year old Betty Yates was stabbed in the face. He had planned to crucify the vicar but had left behind his hammer an nails, instead covering his dead body in pornographic DVDs, party poppers and condoms. Though Farrow is likely to spend the rest of his life in jail, the family members questioned why he had been free in the first place.
Farrow had previously been convicted of aggravated burglary and diagnosed with psychopathic disorder. He had told the doctor who diagnosed him that he had violent sexual fantasies that included raping young girls, breaking into the homes of old women, tying up their husband, raping the woman in front of him, killing the husband in front of the woman, then killing the woman by hanging, suffocation, or stabbing.
As more and more becomes understood about psychopathy, the possibilities for preventing harm become greater, but are accompanied by very difficult choices. A variety of methods can be used to diagnose those at risk of criminal behaviour of the type Farrow engaged in, and presumably these will become more and more reliable. At the same time, a key aspect of the behaviour of psychopaths is their apparent resistance to change.
There are two main ways in which such behaviour is addressed, and neither seems ideal. On the one hand is the criminal route where parole boards, in my experience, have little compunction in refusing release to those who have served their sentence yet are considered to remain a risk to life and limb. However this power only arises after a person has committed a very serious crime and been convicted for it. It is no surprise that the family members of Farrow’s victims expressed concerns that little was done about him despite the apparent risk until after he had viciously murdered their loved ones. On top of this, the fact that criminal punishment alone has little effect on psychopathic behaviour suggests that there is precious little point in the sentence itself.
The other alternative is the mental health route. This also is not ideal to address the behaviour of individuals such as Farrow, at least in the UK. Under the Mental Health Act 1983, as far as I understand it (and I admit this is not my area of expertise), individuals can only be detained for assessment (section 2) or for treatment (section 3). The emphasis is, for understandable reasons, rather on treatment. Mental health professionals are understandably concerned about the prospect of determining that an individual should be detained due to the risk that they pose to the public. Such a power would make relationships with their patients difficult, it would be a heavy responsibility, and it may stigmatise those with mental illness.
So perhaps there should be a third way for that narrow category of individuals such as Farrow? That an individual should face criminal prosecution, or needs mental health treatment, seem to be familiar means of addressing particular problems. How a problem is framed seems to have a significant effect on its prospects of success. But neither the criminal, nor the mental health route, seem ideal frames to address the particular problems that criminal psychopaths appear to pose. Given our increasing understanding of psychopathy, I wonder whether it would be able to establish a third procedure that does not have the associations of either of the foregoing. I do not have a specific model in mind, but perhaps that is just the point. The prospect also raises interesting questions about our own ability to change our attitudes to psychopathy.