Do criminals with Asperger's syndrome deserve special treatment?

The state of the universe.
Oct. 23 2009 1:06 PM

The Geek Defense

Do criminals with Asperger's syndrome deserve special treatment?

(Continued from Page 1)

A few recent cases suggest that this line of argument can work well as a sentence mitigation tool. Last month, an Iowa judge reduced a sentence for child pornography possession from 20 years to seven years, after concluding that Asperger's "might very well explain the number of images" involved in the case. In the United Kingdom, a 21-year-old student with Asperger's was given only four months of jail time for possession of 922 pornographic images of children. (Not all courts have been so sympathetic.)

The same reasoning applies to cases of computer fraud. In August, a California man faced a minimum of six and a half years in prison for a multimillion-dollar computer scam involving a fake trucking company. He and a colleague would take orders for their nonexistent business. Then, using information obtained by hacking into a Department of Transportation Web site, they would take credit for deliveries made by real truck companies. In this case, the man's lawyers argued that his Asperger's disorder drove him to engage in repetitive acts of fraud. They also claimed that his extreme social awkwardness made it impossible for him to have masterminded the conspiracy. ("Some people are more vulnerable than others," said his attorney.) The judge handed down a reduced sentence of less than five years.


McKinnon's supporters have taken this one step further: They claim that he shouldn't be locked up at all, as it would be cruel and unusual to put someone with his social impairments in a conventional prison. In 2007, psychiatrist David Allen published a set of interviews he'd conducted with six British convicts with Asperger's. He concluded that being imprisoned was exceptionally stressful and confusing for them. Each one found interactions with police and prison guards traumatic, and most reported extreme difficulties interacting with other prisoners. Two of Allen's interviewees were so intimidated that they spent much of their time hiding in fear. While evidence of Asperger's defendants experiencing physical abuse in prison is anecdotal, a 2001 report by the National Research Council found that people with developmental disabilities were four to 10 times more likely to be victims of crimes in general.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it's not clear where else you might put these vulnerable inmates. Traditionally, defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity would be sent to a mental institution. But the drugs and therapy sessions that are prescribed to adults with psychiatric problems aren't likely to help people with a condition like Asperger's, which develops in childhood and never goes away. Andy Thomson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy, suggests punishing Asperger's criminals with long, supervised probation periods instead.

That's largely how the courts have dealt with autism, which first showed up in criminal cases in the 1950s. Still, the legal system isn't always consistent in its treatment of criminals with developmental disabilities, and the sentences handed down to autistic defendants can vary widely depending on the court. Asperger's may prove even more challenging than autism, because it lacks the well-defined intellectual deficits that make the latter relatively easy to diagnose. How will a judge determine whether a given diagnosis of Asperger's is scientifically valid, let alone decide how the disorder relates to a particular crime? These are two of many questions that the criminal justice system faces as the number of children and adults being diagnosed with Asperger's continues to rise.

Erica Westly has a M.S. in neuroscience and has written for Scientific American, the Scientist, and Discover magazine.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.