Psychopathic Typologies and the Law

Psychopathic Typologies and the Law


Experts estimate that psychopaths comprise less than 1% of the population but commit as much as 30% to 40% of the violent crime in the United States. Given that the cost of crime in the United States is estimated to be $2.3 trillion per year and violent crime constitutes the vast proportion of these costs, psychopathy is likely the most expensive mental health disorder known to man. Of course, these financial estimates do not include the emotional damage to victims of crime or increased fear for everyone. In addition to these practical problems, psychopaths pose theoretical challenges for legal theory. If psychopaths cannot appreciate that or why their acts are wrong, it might seem unfair to punish them in the same way as normal criminals. Psychopathy is among the best available predictors of recidivism. This predictive power raises questions of whether psychopathy should be treated as an aggravating or mitigating factor in sentencing, whether psychopaths should be released by parole boards when they behave well in prison, and whether they should be detained in prison after serving their sentence to prevent them from committing more crimes. It is therefore clear that psychopathy raise a lot of legal questions and this necessitates a wider scrutiny into this construct.


Psychopathy is defined in psychiatry and psychology as a condition characterized by lack of conscience or empathy, poor impulse control as well as manipulative conducts. Psychopathy has also been defined in legal and judicial terms entirely separately from its clinical context, and various states and nations have enacted laws specific to managing psychopathic offenders in light of findings from various researches that have consistently demonstrated a significant relationship between psychopathy and violence. That is, individuals with psychopathic personality styles have been found to possess a more than average tendency tobe involved in general violent behavior andcriminal behavior than their non-psychopathic counterparts. This paper sheds some light on the linkage between psychopathic typologies and the American criminal system, addressing subjects such as the culpableness of a psychopath to stand trial, psychopaths and their reaction towards a threat of incarceration, and the perception of health professionals towards psychopathic personalities.

  1. Do you believe that the criminal justice system would tend to classify most individuals exhibiting psychopathic typologies as legally “insane?” 

Not entirely.In law, a far reaching decision has to be made on whether or not, at some time in the past, when a defendant has committed a criminal act, he could have made a deliberate decision not to violate the law. This forms the basis of whether a defendant can be considered legally “insane” and therefore not culpable of a crime or not.In the United States criminal system, according to the Model Penal Code Rule formulated by the American Law Institute (ALI) an offender cannot be exculpated on the basis of repeated criminal or antisocial conduct, and psychopathy is clearly excluded as a basis for insanity defense. In legal proceedings in the United States, psychopathic typologies cannot be used as a defense(Roesch, Zapf, & Hart, 2010). From an evolutionary perspective, the view that psychopathy constitutes an adaptive, alternative life strategy does not reduce the offenders culpability in the eyes of the law.

Psychopathic typologies present a notoriously difficult case for the legal notion of insanity. The question of whether psychopaths are criminally responsible for their actions is much discussed by social scientists and legal theorists, and psychopaths have been found legally insane by the courts in some cases. Generally psychopaths are thought to be criminally responsible for their actions and are tried for their crimes, for they do not suffer from delusions or psychoses of any kind and they reason well enough. When psychopaths commit crimes they know they are breaking societal norms. However, other scholars have argued that psychopaths are so emotional and morally deficient that they cannot understand the emotional and moral significance for others on matter such as death, love, friendship, and career, so they cannot understand how they provide reason for acting and for judgment. Thus, psychopaths do not truly know the nature of their acts because they lack the basic values and emotional capacity required for an understanding of morality. The scholars conclude that psychopaths should therefore be considered legally insane and are not criminally responsible for their actions.

  1. Are psychopathic personalities deterred by the threat of legal punishment? Why? Why not?

No, the prospect or threat of punishment has little or no deterrent effect on psychopathic behavior.One of the most important functions of the law is to make people control their impulses. Two important goals of incarceration are to punish the offender and to act as a deterrentagainst future crime. Unfortunately, according to Wolfe(2014)psychopathic offenders are relatively unresponsive to either punishment or the threat of punishment. The author further notes that while many psychopaths are of average or above average intelligence; they symmetrically fail to be persuaded by the threat of punishment such that they refrain from committing crimes.They neither learn from their mistakes nor are they deterred by punishment. As impulsive risk takers, they are unlikely to be dissuaded by a vague threat of possible incarceration at some time in the seemingly distant future. Consequently, incarceration is a relatively ineffective strategy with psychopaths. A fact reflected in their considerably higher rate of recidivism, particularly violent recidivism.Siegel & Worrall(2014) suggest that perhaps if punishment could be made more immediate, it would be effective. However, it would be both difficult and costly to make significant improvements in this regard, and errors in the application of justice would be more common and severe.

It is worth noting that while imprisonment does not deter psychopaths from offending, their incarceration does serve to protect the public. Thus, one partial solution to the problem of psychopathic offenders might be selective long-term incapacitation of individuals diagnosed as psychopaths. Evidence suggests that psychopathic offenders tend to “burn out” around the age of 35-40, with their rate of offending dropping to that of non-psychopathicoffenders, although their personality does not change. It may therefore be possible to reduce the offending of psychopathic individuals by maximizing the length of their custodial sentences.

  1. How do you think the legal system would answer these questions?

For several thousand years, the legal systems haveconsideredthe issue of mental illnesses and the law, and the product of this has been the development of concepts such as fitness or competency to stand trial, the insanity defense, involuntary civil commitment, and hospital or treatment orders (Häkkänen-Nyholm & Nyholm, 2012). As psychopaths formally were just considered to be “bad” rather than “mad” the law has not yet developed any special considerations for them. Indeed, it is not a conventional mental disorder. Instead, psychopathy has been a synonymous with “bad” and, as many cases show, evidence of psychopathy, via the testimony of an expert, leads to harsher treatment by the legal system.The difference and relationship between the law and psychopaths and mentally ill persons, who typically are found to be legally “insane” or otherwise not criminally responsible, is that psychopaths are not cognitively impaired (Wolfe, 2014). This aspect is what the legal system is interested in and has formed the basis for many court decisions.

  1. Do you believe the legal system has sought to address the questions posed above? Why? Why not?

Yes, the legal system has sought to address the question with regards to the relationship between the law and psychopathic typologies.While insanity pleas seem to many to threaten the role of criminal law and punishment as a deterrent against anti-social acts, and indeed uncontrollable impulses as a defense. The America legal system has recognized it as a justifiable reason for a defendant to use as defense. The America legal system has sought to address the question on the subject of psychopathy and the law. It has conceived various law application that take in to consideration the mental aspect of a defendant. For example, in the criminal legal system, criminal cases of offenders considered to have demonstrated psychopathic behavior are treated differently from normal contemporary cases involving sane offenders.This can be reflected in the justice system sentencing and parole decisions which have been and, arguably continue to be influenced and determined by whether an offender is psychopathic or not.

The legal system has also recognized two forms of legal “insanities” which are admissible before the criminal justice system. The courts allow for a defendant to avoid liability of a crime because at the time of the crime, the offender did not appreciate the nature or wrongfulness of the act. The first form of legally “insane”defense is cognitive insanity, which most psychopaths use as defense for their crimes. Under this form of legal “insanity” a defendantmust show that he was so prejudiced by a mental illness and, or defect that he or she did not know the nature or quality of his action. The other form of insanity plea allowed by the American criminal system is the volitional insanity or irresistible insanity. A defense of irresistible impulse asserts that the defendants although able to distinguish right from wrong at the time of the act suffered from a defect or mental disease that made him incapable of controlling his actions.It is therefore clear that the legal system has sought to address the question of psychopathictypologiesand the law.

  1. How do you believe mental health professionals would answer these questions?

In clinical practice, psychologists and psychiatrists seek to assess the general mental health of a client as reflected in his or her recurrent behavior and in the patterns of behavior which are typical of him or her; single episodes, especially when atypical, are of little interest. But the courts are concerned, under whatever specific formulation of the insanity defense or in the search for explanatory or mitigating circumstances, only with a person’s state of mind with respect to a particular proscribed behavior, whether observed in a single episode or recurrent.

The mental health professionals would consider psychopathic typologies as legally culpable to stand trial and therefore not legally insane. According to some authors, psychopaths have the capacity to distinguish right from wrong, and should therefore be held legally responsible for their actions. A psychopath, who has no additional handicaps, is capable of understanding his actions, and knowing right from wrong, and therefore liable (Sinnott-Armstrong & Kiehl, 2013). Although impulsive, the psychopath is also capable of inhibiting behavior, and can therefore control his actions.The psychopath is also able to foresee the adverse impacts of his actions on victims. Therefore, according to some health professionals psychopathic typologies do not meet the criteria for diminished responsibility and thus they cannot present a plea of “insanity.”However, according to Wolfe(2014), psychopaths have a lack of emotional data, and therefore, some are not criminally responsible because they are not legally rational. The author further adds that psychopaths are not fully culpable because they lack personhood, or moral knowledge. They deficit in executive function and thus not fully rational.


In conclusion, as most studies have established, psychopaths, in comparison with non-psychopaths, are at an increased risk for acting violently and offending and for doing so more quickly and in more diverse ways and across various settings whether they are mentally disordered, sex offenders, young offenders, or just a regular non-mentally ill offender. Given the robustness of the relation between psychopathy and violence, it is important to take this personality style into consideration in every security risk assessment.



Häkkänen-Nyholm, H., & Nyholm, J.-O. (2012). Psychopathy and Law: A Practitioner’s Guide. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Roesch, R., Zapf, P. A., & Hart, S. D. (2010). Forensic Psychology and Law. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Siegel, L., & Worrall, J. (2014). Essentials of Criminal Justice (9 ed.). California: Cengage Learning.

Sinnott-Armstrong, W., & Kiehl, K. A. (2013). Handbook on Psychopathy and Law. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wolfe, C. T. (2014). Brain Theory: Essays in Critical Neurophilosophy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.


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