The 3 psychological elements of accountability

In psychology, the term “accountability” refers to degree to which a person was aware of their criminal acts and their willingness to do so.

This idea is very important in legal proceedings, because depending on whether or not the responsible person has been the person of his own behavior, he can be ordered or exempted from paying for it.

On the other hand, responsibility is an aspect that is always taken into account in the commission of any crime and, as it is strictly psychological in nature, it is one of the main areas of intervention of forensic psychology. . We find out why below.

    What is accountability from the point of view of psychology?

    In forensic psychology, responsibility is understood as the ability of a person to be held responsible for a legally wrongdoing that may have been committed. This is one of the areas where forensic psychologists are most helpful in the administration of justice, but that does not mean that it is the job of a psychologist to determine whether a person is responsible for his or her. acts or not.

    The decision to hold someone responsible is up to the administration of justice, which relies on the expert judgment of forensic psychologists and thus makes an informed decision.

    The idea of ​​accountability is old, we find it in the legislative texts of the Greeks, Romans, and even in Hebrew law.. Since this idea has existed, court systems around the world have incorporated different variations of it over time. The main concept behind this idea is that a criminal act can only be punishable if the person who committed it has the capacity to recognize it as such and has freely chosen to carry it out.

      Psychological elements involved in the ability to understand what is being done

      For an act to be recognized as attributable, the individual must be able to understand that his conduct or omission constitutes a crime and that it entails a criminal sanction. To achieve this understanding, the individual must have three capacities or dimensions, although the first two are considered fundamental.

      1. Cognitive

      Cognitive ability is synonymous with intelligence. Refers to the individual’s ability to understand and integrate information from the environment, understand what is going on around him.

      Depending on the degree of intelligence of the perpetrator, he will be aware of the unlawful nature of his acts and the consequences of his behavior.

        2. Will

        Voluntary capacity refers to the subject’s willingness to act according to his desires or intentions, that is, if he deliberately acted illegally. This dimension is linked to the motivational aspects of behavior and consists of two main aspects:

        • Predisposition or potential to commit a crime.
        • Ability to act in accordance with what the laws expect of the individual.

        3. Judicial or judgments

        Judicial capacity refers to the ability of the individual to decide and express a behavior according to his criteria and his interest in the problems generated by the environment. This third dimension is sometimes combined with the volitive dimension.

          Who is to blame in a lawsuit?

          Thus, taking into account these three dimensions, we consider that a person is attributable to an illegal act when he committed it knowing what he was doing, that he did it in complete freedom and with the clear intention to accomplish it. .

          This idea of ​​accountability is the same that governs most of the penal codes of democratic nations., although with its variants, and in case of lack of some of these capacities, the author of a crime of criminal responsibility is exonerated.

          In the Spanish case, the imputability is delimited in article 20 of the penal code, in points 1 and 2e:

          1st Who, at the time of committing the criminal offense, due to any anomaly or mental alteration, cannot understand the illegality of the fact or act in accordance with this agreement.

          Transient mental disorders won’t keep you from grieving when he was provoked by the subject for the purpose of committing the crime or had foreseen or had to foresee his commission“.

          2 ° Who, at the time of committing the criminal offense, is in a state of total intoxication due to the consumption of alcoholic beverages, toxic drugs, narcotics, psychotropic substances or others which produce similar effects, provided that ” he was not wanted for the purpose of committing or his commission was not planned or should have been planned, or is under the influence of an abstinence syndrome, because of his dependence on these substances, which prevents him from understanding the illegality of the fact or from acting in accordance with this understanding. “

          Who is responsible for assessing these capacities?

          The professionals responsible for assessing the psychological capacities related to accountability are forensic psychologists.

          While accountability itself is a legal concept, there are many psychological aspects that can affect a person’s responsibility for a crime. Among these psychological aspects or determinants of their behavior we have mental disorders such as personality disorders, drug addiction, intellectual disability, intoxication …

          But, as we discussed earlier, psychologists are not responsible for assessing whether or not an individual is attributable to a crime. The figure of the forensic psychologist requires neither defense nor judge, since legal accountability is the task of judges. What forensic psychologists do is establish psychic causality between the accused and the acts committed, understood as psychic imputability.

          Determine the extent to which an individual is responsible for their own behavior a thorough assessment is needed to see if there is a mental disorder that explains it or any other psychological condition relevant to the case..

          In addition, an analysis that determines how this disorder decreased the individual’s ability to understand the illegality of the act and / or their ability to have acted differently is essential, establishing a causal relationship between the disorder and the crime. committed.

          It should be noted that during the forensic assessment not only the intelligence and will of the subject are taken into account when committing the crime. Human mind and behavior are too complex to be reduced to awareness of the subject of their actions and whether there has been an express desire to commit the crime. As with any psychological assessment, first it is necessary to study the case taking into account its peculiarities, to design a precise assessment and, on the basis of the data obtained, to prepare a psychological expert report.

          Causes of accountability

          The causes for which an individual is not aware of his behavior or does not understand the seriousness of the situation are various. The responsibility or irresponsibility of the subject with regard to the criminal act he has committed determines the presence or absence of accountability and, also, determines the causes. In the case of Spain and many developed countries, a subject will not be responsible for typical and illegal conduct when any of the following circumstances occur:

          • Mental disorder
          • Intellectual disability
          • Severe disturbance of consciousness
          • Be under 16 years old

          1. Mental disorders, psychoses and psychopathies

          Mental disorders, also called mental illnesses in the legal field, correspond to the general name of any major mental disorder of organic or emotional origin.

          In the legal field, they are understood as conditions characterized by loss of contact with reality and often with hallucinations and delusions. In the case of psychosis there would be an alteration of intelligence, while in psychopathies there would be an alteration of the personality.

          In forensic psychology, to determine whether or not a mental disorder exists and how it influences an individual’s responsibility for the crime committed, the following criteria are generally followed:

          • Biological or psychiatric: the diagnosis is enough to determine the imputability.
          • Psychological: the manifestation of the abnormality at the time of the crime is sufficient.
          • Mixed. The judge determines the imputability on the basis of a psychiatric diagnosis according to the moment of manifestation of the abnormality.

          2. Intellectual disability

          Intellectual disability involves a severe lack of intelligence, also known as oligophrenia (from “oligo”, “little or no” and “phreen”, “intelligence”). In the legal field, it would be defined as any neurological syndrome involving a marked intellectual deficit, whether congenital or acquired early, and which it has a global impact on both the personality and the degree of independence of the person affected. This situation can occur for the following reasons:

          • Genetics: Intellectual deficit explained by Mendel’s laws.
          • Chromosomal alteration (for example, trisomy 21, trisomy 18, Turner, Klinefelter …)
          • Germs: exogenous cause in prepartum (syphilis), childbirth (suffocation) or postpartum (accidental fall of the newborn)

          Deafness and blindness would also fall under this circumstance, provided it is from birth. Although these two conditions are not synonymous with intellectual disability, it is considered that a person born with problems of deafness and blindness, especially if they occur in association as is the case with deaf-mute, will not develop not fully their intelligence or the ability to know their surroundings, which is why, although they exhibit intelligence in normalcy, they would be treated as oligophrenics.

          3. Serious disturbance of consciousness

          With a serious disturbance of conscience, we refer to the fact that the one who committed the crime he was under the influence of something or someone that prevented him from consciously acting. The subject was in a situation where he suffered from a profound alteration in the perception of reality. In this type of circumstance, we find:

          1. Alcohol poisoning

          The effects of alcohol diminished the subject’s cognitive processes and reduced his voluntary control over the acts, which occurred at the time of committing the crime. In this circumstance, there are different categories.

          • Fortuitous: involuntary. This is the ingestion of an excessive amount of alcohol for the subject which has caused acute poisoning. He is exempt.
          • Guilty: voluntary. Occasional or habitual ingestion without moderation but without intention to get drunk. It is mitigating.
          • Delicious: voluntary and premeditated. Ingestion with the clear intention of subsequently committing a crime and obtaining exemption from it.

          At the same time, depending on the degree of intoxication manifested by the subject at the time of committing the crime, we have: Full or complete: this is the state of confusion where the subject is completely drunk and deprived of intelligence and will ; semi-complete or incomplete: the subject has a certain capacity to want and understand what he is doing, but not in a lucid manner.

          If the drunkenness is fortuitous and complete, it is considered exempt from liability, while if it is half-complete, it is mitigated.. If she is guilty, she pleads guilty and, if she is willful, is considered a fully conscious crime.

          2. Sleep

          During sleep, a situation arises which precludes the ability to understand and know and therefore there would be no guilt.. An example of this situation would be the mother crushing the baby.

          Somnambulism would also be included in this situation, a sleep disorder characterized by the subject’s ability to perform acts specific to the waking state, only that he is deeply asleep. It is considered an attributable situation.

          Special mention obliges the case of hypnosis, a state of deep suggestion which, as a rule, is also attributable, as long as he acted by behaving like an instrument of what the hypnotist ordered his victim.

          3. Extreme pain and passionate states

          Certain medical conditions can temporarily alter the will and intelligence of the affected person. Extreme pain is considered to be alleviating and, in the event that this destroys the reason or causes the affected person to open as if he had entered an episode of psychosis, it is usually dispensed with. The passionate state subsides.

            Social utility of determining accountability

            You might think that it doesn’t matter how conscious an individual is in committing a crime when it comes to penalizing them for it. Committing a crime has certain social consequences beyond the will and intelligence of the perpetrator and, with that in mind, that he suffers from a mental disorder or intellectual disability would not be a sufficient excuse to reduce his sentence or exempt him from a crime.

            This idea is generally based on the belief that the law and punishment are made to avenge the reprehensible behavior of one who has committed a crime. Many still see prison and punitive measures today as mere punishment for giving their own medicine to those who have done wrong, when in reality these measures aim to reintegrate the individual and make him think about his behavior. , understand what he did wrong in order to prevent him from doing it again.

            In the case of people with impaired will and intelligence, if they do not understand what they have done wrong or if their behavior is the result of a mental disorder, what they need is not jail time, but special treatment for their psychological conditions.

            They will also need an educational program to show them why their behavior has been legally wrong and provide them with the tools and strategies to prevent them from committing it again. Convicting someone who is unaware of their actions is an extremely unproductive measure that does not guarantee that the subject will do no more harm.

            Bibliographical references

            • Penal Code [CP]. Law 281 of 1995. Article 20. November 23, 1995 (Spain)
            • Maple, Ramon & Novo, Mercedes & Chère, Barbara. (2014). Forensic psychological assessment of accountability.
            • Cabrera, J., and Fuertes, JC (1997). Psychiatry and Law: Two Sciences Necessary to Understand Each Other. Madrid: Editorial read.
            • Carbonell, JC, Gómez, JL and Mengual, JB (1987). Mental illness and crime. Psychiatric, penal and procedural aspects. Madrid: Civitas.
            • Torre, J. de la (1999). Criminal liability in psychopathologies: judicial and jurisprudential assessments. Studies in Psychology, 63-64, 163-173.

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