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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.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Initially I balked at this article, reading with dispair as psychopathy was again closely, but incorrectly linked with mental ill health. I’m pleased I continued reading.

    There does need to be a ‘third way’. Prison cannot address the behaviours associated with psychopathy and has little or not effect on the individual prisoner. Prison in itself is likely to induce mental illness (Ian Brady, a psychopath, became mentally ill in Prison).

    Forensic hospitals provide mental health care for mentally disordered offenders – people with a clearly defined mental illness. Work within these hospitals addresses both the illness and the criminal behaviour, thus as psychopathy is not an mental illness, the effectiveness of placing people within this environment is both wasteful and detrimental to the patients there.

    What could a ‘third way’ look like? I’m not clear on that, but we must ensure human rights are protected when we look at readdressing such a sensitive issue.

  2. Dear Dawn

    Thanks for your response, I’m glad you continued reading too. I was hoping that readers of the blog might have some suggestions of what a third way might look like. For example:

    1. Which professionals would be involved? Lawyers? Medical staff? A new profession?
    2. Would this be a process within an existing framework, such as the courts, or an entirely new one?
    3. What type of procedure would it follow? An adversarial procedure with the individual’s rights being protected by a lawyer or advocate, or something else?
    4. What would the reaction be to such a procedure? Would the public still want some kind of retribution beyond the detention or other measures taken towards the person concerned?
    5. What type of expertise would be relevant? Medical? Neuroscience?
    6. What type of evidence could be used? Brainscans? What might be the reaction to this?

  3. Paul,

    The last line of your article needs to be addressed first. There needs to be a fundamental attitude change about psychopathy before anything can or will be done. The stigma attached to the condition will always prevent the law and even mental health professionals from addressing the issues related to psychopathy. It is very easy to ‘label’ someone a psychopath for committing a murder, who will be inevitably locked up for life. The public is already protected. Psychopaths don’t all commit murder, but they are all abusive, physically or emotionally.

    Psychopaths also come through the Court system as part of ‘high conflict’ divorces. Should the Court require a psychological evaluation as a way to screen for these individuals? What about teenagers that have been arrested. Should the Juvenile Courts evaluate the potential for psychopathy? White collar crime is also committed by psychopaths. Should people guilty of fraud, embezzlement or other non-violent felonies be screened for psychopathy?

    Dr. Hervey Cleckley, author of Mask of Sanity referred to the problem as a ‘Conspiracy of silence’. The reality is that psychopaths will continue to flourish in society because everyone is unwilling to identify the pattern of behaviors as psychopathy. Only the most violent offenders will find themselves diagnosed as a ‘psychopath’.

    Discussing what should be done about them may be putting the cart before the horse. The severity of the problem and the chaos created by them is still not acknowledged by the Courts or even the mental health professionals.

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