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Genetics, IQ and the judicial double standard

By J. DeVoy

Emergent research is raising a serious question about the heritability of IQ, suggesting that most of it is, in fact, genetic.  High IQ is associated with the prevalence of certain SNPs – groupings of nucleotides in an individual’s genetic code – which cannot be caused by normal life functions like exercise, eating a healthy diet, or even studying really hard.  Other studies have shown that in-group IQ remains relatively constant over life, indicating that things like education and reading can’t enhance IQ, but merely reflect one’s innate genetic gifts.

Courts, however, have been facing these realities long before now.  In Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional to execute someone with a severe mental disability — a condition inherently reflecting low IQ.  Similarly, in Griggs v. Duke Power Co., the Supreme Court banned the power company’s use of IQ tests in assigning employees to certain tasks and positions.  Turning to anecdote, I witnessed a sentencing hearing while volunteering for my home district’s Federal Public Defender where the AFPD asked for leniency because the defendant, pleading guilty to child pornography charges, had a shockingly low IQ (below 80).

IQ is used as a one-way street: It excuse the actions of people who cannot function in society without committing crime and harming others, and that is all.  Pointing out low IQ as a reason for individual failure, though, is career suicide — the concept may as well not even exist in those circumstances.  If IQ shows that someone may be smarter than his or her peers, then IQ is just a “social construct”*, as personal success can only be attributed to that ugly “p” word, “privilege.”

While extreme cases like Atkins may warrant heightened protection of individual rights – it is the death penalty, after all – low IQ, like ugliness, is not a protected condition.  Yet, in cases where defendants are incapable of apprehending the wrong of their actions, and even less likely to learn from them, society’s urge to punish them is almost nil.  For instance, an Italian court reduced the sentence of a man who showed he was genetically prone to crime.  Is this bizarro world?  If violence is genetically innate for someone, it makes sense to detain them even longer, probably even forever. Rehabilitation sure as hell isn’t going to happen.

Inasmuch as it is impossible to change one’s genes, it is impossible to expect these people to change hard-wired genetic traits.  Low IQ is not an excuse for criminal conduct, but instead an excellent predictor of it.

While it would be inhuman to punish the low IQ simply for having low IQ, courts and society need to embrace a consistent approach.  Using IQ as an excuse when convenient, while decrying it as a social ill at all other times, is unworkable.  When IQ is a factor in an individual’s criminal conduct, courts and counsel should realize that the likelihood of rehabilitation generally is low.  Though the defendant may not reoffend, that consideration will arise from how strongly his or her law-abiding habits are ingrained as constant behaviors, something ascertainable only on a case-by-case basis.  This consideration does not make low-IQ individuals bad people, and may even make the incarceration experience more sensitive to their unique situation.  This point cannot be reached, though, until courts acknowledge the immutable, unchangeable nature of IQ, and stop allowing it to exist merely as an excuse for criminal conduct.

*g, the general factor of intelligence, is a composite of all other forms of intelligence and a mathematical construct.

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