A criminal's genetic make-up could in the future
determine how long they are sentenced to spend in jail and
affect when or if they might be released.
''Genetic or neuroscientific'' evidence being used in the
justice system was not ''far-fetched'' and could happen in
New Zealand, the University of Otago's Prof Colin Gavaghan
said in Dunedin last night at a Genetics Week lecture titled
''Dealing Ethically with Genes for Criminality''.
Research suggested people with genes causing low levels of an
enzyme called MAO-A, when combined with a bad childhood, had
a ''significantly higher'' rate of ''violent criminality'',
In contrast, those with high levels of MAO-A, even those who
experienced bad childhoods, were less prone to violence.
This and other genetic and neuroscientific research had
already been used in the Italian justice system and it could
be used here in ''two ways''.
It could be used to excuse a defendant of their conduct or
''reduce their culpability'' - for example having murder
reduced to manslaughter or being given a lighter sentence.
''I have spoken to one judge fairly recently who said he
would have no problem with admitting genetic evidence at
[sentencing] if he was convinced it was reliable evidence.''
It could also be used as evidence to keep people in prison
for longer, or deny parole, on the basis they were
genetically predisposed to reoffend when released.
Prof Gavaghan, the director of the New Zealand Law Foundation
Centre for Law and Policy in Emerging Technologies, said this
could become more relevant if Justice Minister Judith
Collins' Public Safety (Public Protection Orders) Bill
passed, which would allow the most serious sexual or violent
offenders to be detained after serving their sentence if they
were judged to pose an imminent risk of reoffending.
As the science developed, there was a possibility of it being
used in more disturbing ways, with The Anatomy of Violence
author Adrian Raine raising the possibility of a future where
all males at age 18 are given a brain scan - and if they
failed they could be ''detained indefinitely''.
The development of science in this field raised ''important''
political questions over the course New Zealand should take,
Prof Gavaghan said. He also said that a large proportion of
the public would likely support the scenario envisaged by Mr
''If the public are offered a possibility that they and their
children will be safe and the only cost will be a small
number of dangerous people will be deprived of their freedom,
I don't think politically that's a hard sell at all.''
Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics director Prof
Julain Savulescu explored the issue further and also looked
into the idea of using drugs to enhance people's morals.
He suggested children with the low MAO-A producing gene could
be prioritised by social service agencies, because they were
more likely to commit violence if they were not well raised.
He also argued in favour of using drugs to enhance morals in
''targeted ways'', and not just for criminals.
''It is only a matter of time before the human brain can be
under our control, as indeed our body is, in terms of
physical enhancements,'' Prof Savulescu said.