February - March, 2018

Brain Damage Possible Link to Criminal Behavior

A recent study suggests that damage to certain areas of the brain may make a person more likely to engage in criminal behavior. The study, by researchers at Harvard Medical School, found that brain lesions found in 17 people who had committed criminal activity after brain injury typically involved an area associated with moral decision-making.

A recent article notes that interest relating of possible links between brain damage and criminal behavior peaked after the 1966 Texas Tower Sniper shootings; in that case, the shooter, Charles Whitman, had complained of headaches and personality changes in the period before he stabbed to death his mother and his wife and then shot and killed at least 14 people and wounded 31 more from the Tower. In a later autopsy it was discovered that Whitman had a tumor in his brain.

The researchers noted that not all people with lesions in the brain area will commit crimes, and they indicated they could not predict who with lesions in those areas might commit crimes due to the effects of other factors, including genetics, environmental and social factors.

Sources:  Harry Pettit, “Can brain injuries make you a CRIMINAL? Damage to areas linked with making moral choices boosts your risk of breaking the law, reveals Harvard study,” dailymail.co.uk, December 19, 2017:
Wikipedia link:

Officials Seek 50% Cut in Parole and Probation Populations

Recent reports from the Justice Lab at Columbia University have led officials involved in community supervision to call for a 50% reduction in the number of people on probation and parole. One of the reports, “Too big to succeed: The impact of the growth of community corrections and what should be done about it,” published January 29, 2018 (“Report”), noted that the principles of probation and parole developed in the 19th Century (in 1841 and 1876, respectively) were initially focused on rehabilitation and community supervision of the offender, rather than on harsher punishments. Over time, the numbers of people on probation, parole, or incarcerated increased significantly; however, funding for community-based supervision failed to keep pace. As a result, one effect was for community corrections – instead of being an alternative to incarceration – to develop into an “add-on.”

For example, between 1980 and 2007, the number of people on probation and parole in the United States increased almost four times; probationers increased from 1.1 million to 4.3 million, and parolees increased from 220,400 to 826,100. Also, the number of people incarcerated in prisons and jails increased from 474,368 to 2.3 million. As of 2015, one out of every 53 American adults were on probation or parole. One researcher, Michelle Phelps, from the University of Minnesota, noted, “Rather than choosing probation or prison, we have increasingly chosen all of the above, despite sustained declines in crime rates since the 1990s.”

Between 1983 and 2008, the number of people directed into community supervision doubled; however, on average, 88% of allocated funds from authorities went to prisons, with only 12% being allocated for probation and parole programs. The increasing workload on the probation and parole systems, according to the Report, “have led policy makers from coast to coast to rely on fees paid by people on probation and parole to bail out shrinking corrections budgets.” In 2015, the White House Council of Economic Advisors issued a report wherein it was noted:

“Fines and fees create large financial and human costs, all of which are disproportionately borne by the poor. High fines and fee payments may force the indigent formerly incarcerated to make difficult trade-offs between paying court debt and other necessary purchases. Unsustainable debt coupled with the threat of incarceration may even encourage some formerly incarcerated individuals to return to criminal activity to pay off their debts, perversely increasing recidivism.”

The problems of inadequate funding, “get tough” on crime, and the increasing use of numerous special conditions placed on probationers and parolees, has led to an increase in the numbers of technical violators being returned to incarceration.  The Report notes, “Charged with assuring the public safety in a political environment with low risk tolerance, community corrections personnel have too often resorted to probation and parole revocations and incarceration.” One former commissioner of probation in New York City said, “Few probation agencies have the ability to ‘step up’ people on probation who technically violate (or are at risk of violating) to drug treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, or employment programs.  As a result, probation officers with little to no resources, eager to manage risk and their large caseloads, default to the most available option they have – the most expensive and punitive option – the formal violation process which often results in jail or prison.”

Recent research cited in the Report suggests that “being under parole supervision may actually be causally related to reincarceration.” As a result, many jurisdictions have sought to reduce the number of conditions imposed on probationers and parolees, reduce the time of supervision periods, and to incentivize good behavior. By reducing the number of individuals under supervision, communities can refocus the savings realized on necessary support services for the individuals.

Six major recommendations were made by the Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management in 2017; the recommendations are quoted below:

Reserving the use of community corrections for only those who truly require supervision;
Reducing lengths of stay under community supervision to only as long as necessary to accomplish the goals of sentencing;
Exercising parsimony in the use of supervision conditions to no more conditions than required to achieve the objectives of supervision;
Incentivizing progress on probation and parole by granting early discharge for those who exhibit significant progress;
Eliminating or significantly curtailing charging supervision fees; and
Preserving most or all of the savings from reducing probation and parole populations and focusing those resources on improving community-based services and supports for people under supervision.

Sources:  TCR Staff, “Top Officials Call for 50% Cut in Probation, Parole,” the crimereport.org, January 29, 2018:
Columbia University, Justice Lab, “Too big to succeed: The impact of the growth of community corrections and what should be done about it,” January 29, 2018:
Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, Statement on the Future of Community Corrections, Harvard Kennedy School (August 28, 2017):


AI Better than Humans at Spotting Liars

A newly developed AI system, called Deception Analysis and Reasoning Engine (“DARE”), recognizes five micro-expressions – “frowning, eyebrows raising, lip corners turning up, lips protruded and head side turn” – associated with a person lying. In tests, where the system viewed videos from 15 courtroom sessions and then was tested on spotting the micro-expression in a final video, the AI found 92% of the micro-expressions. In contrast, human subjects engaging in the same tests, found 81% of the micro-expressions. The researchers claimed that their “vision system, which uses both high-level and low level visual features, is significantly better at predicting deception compared to humans.”

Sources:  Shivali Best, “The robot that knows when you're lying: Scientists create an AI that can detect deception in the courtroom (and it's already 'significantly better' than humans),” dailymail.co.uk, December 20, 2017:

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor