“Warning: Drinking Alcohol During Pregnancy May Cause Your Baby to Serve Hard Time in Prison"

This potential warning label is not far fetched. The direct link between Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and crime is no longer a matter of scientific dispute.

Children afflicted with full-blown FAS display both physical and mental characteristics. Those with partial FAS may not have the physical abnormalities, but they display the same behavioral and psychological problems.

The effect of alcohol on the fetal brain is such that this region does not develop sufficiently to allow the FAS individual to appropriately control his or her actions. As such, FAS patients tend to be impulsive, uninhibited, and fearless. They often display poor judgment and are easily distracted. Difficulties in perceiving social cues and a lack of sensitivity often cause interpersonal problems. FAS patients have difficulties linking events with their resulting consequences. These consequences include both the physical, e.g. getting burned by a hot stove, and the punitive, e.g. being sent to jail for committing a crime. Because of this, it is difficult for these individuals to learn from their mistakes.

Lacking sufficient cognizance of the threat or fear of consequences, the FAS patient is less likely to control his or her impulsive behavior. Similarly, FAS individuals have trouble comprehending that their behavior can affect others. As such, they are unlikely to show true remorse or to take responsibility for their actions. These are the very attributes that can lead to crime, "They are very impulsive and do things that are not well thought out, and they get into significant difficulty from that. The malicious intent is seldom there. I find they're exploited by more talented criminals to do some of the running, if you like, and they're more likely to get caught."

As many as half the young offenders appearing in court may be there because their mothers drank during pregnancy, says Royal University Hospital psychologist Josephine Nanson. Her assessment has tremendous implications for how the criminal justice system handles youth in custody, says University of Saskatchewan law professor Tim Quigley. "It's analogous to the mental disorder defense, in the sense that we've said that people who are affected should not be punished in the usual criminal justice sense," he said. "Are these victims just as much affected by something over which they have no control, and are they deserving of punishment?"

Legal Aid Commission lawyer Kearney Healy says Nanson's suggestion strikes to the basic principles of criminal justice. "The criminal justice system is based on the premise that people understand there are rules, why they have to be obeyed, and if they aren't obeyed then society has the right to come up with any number of options," he said. “All of those things are irrelevant to these kids. It's got nothing to do with good or bad - they just don't see it the same way. Planning, organizing and learning from past mistakes are not in their repertoire. They are egocentric, impulsive and very concrete in their thinking. Typically they do not make connections between cause and effect, anticipate consequences or take the perspective of another person."

"There are an increasing number of cases reaching the courts because we've been diagnosing this for about 20 years. Those individuals are now in adolescence and adulthood, and at a prime age for when they're going to be involved in the court system," she said.

"It presents tremendous challenges, and I'm not sure the courts always understand." commented Professor Habbick, noted researcher. "Given the strict diagnostic criteria used in the study, you're only looking at the tip of the iceberg. For every full case of fetal alcohol syndrome, there are four out there with the partial effects."

"All too often, I find there are children who aren't able to moderate their behavior in even the most obvious ways, even when there are strong rewards," said Healy. "Instead, they are doing things that are going to cause them a great amount of personal pain, for no gain. When I see them, I've got to think there's something going on there."

Shirley LeClaire of Social Services' Family Service Bureau says "there's been a longstanding history in our community of not giving this the attention it needs. It's one of the areas where there's not a lot of attention paid, especially fetal alcohol effects, because you don't have the physical attributes," she said.

"The whole area of FAS and fetal alcohol effects is significant because the way that our system is set up to deal with kids is obviously not going to work for them."

One of the ironies is that children with FAS often make model prisoners, Nanson said. "In terms of the justice system handling individuals with this, one of the things they fail to understand is that FAS people do very well in structured environments," she said. "Often people are fooled in the early stages of treatment into thinking somebody is doing really well, not realizing that they're doing really well because all the opportunities for them not to do well are taken care of in a structured program.. There is a point where the individual with FAS falls apart again."

Being crazy isn’t against the law, but murder is a capitol offense. When the one accused of murder is mentally ill, a variety of factors immediately come into play.

“Popular misconceptions about mental illness are partially responsible for the railroading of mentally ill persons through the criminal justice system,” states Jeff Reynolds. “From arrest to the determination of competency to stand trial and beyond, a person's mental illness affects every stage of passage through the criminal justice system.”

“Behavior associated with mental illness is often perceived as bizarre and suspicious,” insists private investigator Fred Wolfson, “thus drawing police attention, even if the person has not committed a crime. Untrained to recognize and handle mental illness, arresting officers and other staff inappropriately assume the arrestee understands such things as their Miranda rights. Mentally ill people are more likely to give a false confession, especially if they are delusional.”

The concept of culpability is an important aspect of who is sentenced to death. Culpability signifies qualities such as consciousness, reason, and responsibility. It is precisely these qualities that are disabled and distorted by mental illness and therefore a gap exists between a mentally ill offender's behavior and his culpability.

This post was contributed by Burl Barer, an Edgar Award winner, two-time Anthony Award nominee and New York Times best selling author of true crime, mysteries, thrillers, and pop culture. You can find out more about this author and his books by visiting his website at http://www.burlbarer.net, following him on Twitter or joining him on Facebook.

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