Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, would agree. Stout says that psychopaths have a “tragic deficit” in the paralimbic system (the brain’s emotional area), which prevents them from forming bonds or caring about others. “Where emotion is concerned, psychopaths can see it in others when they make a concerted conscious effort,” Stout says. “They just don't care to do so unless they can use it to their own advantage.”
But others, such as Jennifer Skeem, professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, argue that psychopaths are just misunderstood and can be rehabilitated. “Psychopathy tends to be used as a label for people we do not like, cannot understand, or construe as evil,” Skeem says.
The controversy will doubtless continue. Experts disagree over how violent psychopaths should be housed and whether they can be rehabilitated. Studies are cited by both sides. But such is the subtle nature of human behavior that, while the science may be objective, the results of such studies are often open to subjective interpretation.
Meanwhile, the justice system is burdened with the practical issues of keeping these criminals behind bars. In some cases, sexually violent predators are detained not in prisons, but in mental institutions. Such confinement, termed “civil commitment,” became federal law with the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, and is also employed in 20 states.
But this, too, is controversial. Many believe mental health institutions are not the proper place for dangerous criminals, who are better suited to correctional facilities. And some argue that their civil commitment is unfair to mental health professionals and to patients diagnosed with severe, persistent mental health problems.
Since California uses civil commitment, it’s possible that once Cameron Hooker has served his time in Folsom Prison, he’ll be deemed a “sexually violent predator” and transferred to forensic lock-up in a mental institution. But this isn’t mandatory, and no one can predict whether he will qualify for civil commitment. It’s possible that he’ll be set free to stroll the streets.
Dr. Robert Hare, who is perhaps the leading authority on the subject of psychopaths, created the most widely used tool for keeping criminals like Hooker behind bars. The Psychopathy Checklist, also called the PCL or PCL-R, is considered the gold standard in assessing psychopathy. In his book, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, Dr. Hare states that there “is ample evidence that a careful diagnosis of psychopathy, based on the Psychopathy Checklist, greatly reduces the risks associated with decisions in the criminal justice system. Properly used, it can help to differentiate those offenders who pose little risk to society from those who are at a high risk for recidivism or violence.”
Perhaps, properly used, the Psychopathy Checklist can remove the guesswork over which individuals are most dangerous. But of course, no punishment can truly fit the crime. No pound of flesh or pile of cash can buy back years of being chained in the dark.