Post-traumatic stress symptoms can cause violent behavior, aggression and overreaction, especially in military personnel. “In the next several years, criminal courts may see an increase in the numbers of defendants who are veterans still struggling with the psychological effects of war,” said Jennifer Kelly Wilson of the University of Alabama, who recently led a study to determine if these defendants received preferential treatment from the judicial system because of their PTSD. She said, “Prosecutors may view veterans experiencing posttraumatic stress symptoms as less blameworthy for the alleged crime and less deserving of punishment.” Wilson’s team enlisted 35 prosecutors from four states and presented them with criminal scenarios of unprovoked physical assault. Two of the scenarios involved defendants with PTSD, one veteran and one nonveteran, and two without PTSD. The defendants with PTSD had both experienced significant trauma involving an explosion or car accident that resulted in injury to them and the death of people around them.
The researchers found that the defendants with PTSD were more likely to be offered a diversion program than those without. They also discovered that the defendant’s military status by itself was a mediating factor. “Having either PTSD or veteran status made it more likely that a defendant would be offered a diversion program at the pretrial stage,” said Wilson. The prosecutor’s perception of culpability was also influenced by the presence of PTSD. “There was a signiﬁcant effect for PTSD on perceived justiﬁcation for a defendant’s actions in which prosecutors considered defendants who had PTSD to have signiﬁcantly greater justiﬁcation for their criminal actions than defendants who did not have PTSD.” Wilson believes that these findings are significant to the judicial system and the mental health field’s role within it. “Whether a psychologist adopts a more liberal criterion set for diagnosis of PTSD could potentially impact the process and outcome of a trial,” she said. “A more liberal criterion set would likely increase the number of individuals diagnosed with PTSD, adding to the number of people who may be perceived as less worthy of blame and more worthy of a treatment approach by courtroom personnel.”
Wilson, J. K., Brodsky, S. L., Neal, T. M. S., & Cramer, R. J. (2011, August 29). Prosecutor Pretrial Attitudes and Plea-Bargaining Behavior Toward Veterans With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Psychological Services. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0025330
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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