Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke says the time has come for a national debate on using "advanced scientific knowledge," including brain-altering drugs, to punish convicted criminals.
Schmoke says he has no position yet on the controversial subject. Over the past few weeks he has said several times that increasing crime, overcrowded prisons and short prison terms make the debate necessary, however.
"The issue of the use of scientific technology in criminal justice ought to be discussed. We shouldn't put our heads in the sand about this," Schmoke said earlier this month. "We just know that we can't keep building massive prisons as a control mechanism."
Schmoke, who in 1988 touched off a national debate by bTC advocating drug decriminalization, says a national commission should explore alternative treatments and punishment for criminals.
Schmoke said that his idea envisions a wide range of technologies being used in criminal justice. They range from the use of electronic bracelets that use air traffic control technology to track the whereabouts of parolees, to employing drugs to curb compulsive behavior and render rapists harmless.
"Chemicals can induce impotence," Schmoke said. "Should a society use chemicals to induce impotence in rapists?"
He continued. "We now know that certain receptors in the brain control [drug and alcohol] addictions," he said. "Question. Pure question. Should a person have another kind of chemical injected into them to block those receptors to their brain? These are issues that have to be talked about."
Some of the technology contemplated in the ideas raised by Schmoke are not new. But the mayor's comments alarmed several psychiatrists and criminal justice experts, who say Schmoke is misguided.
"The whole idea of relying upon mind-altering drugs or chemical castration is troubling," said Dr. Jerome G. Miller, who heads the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives.
"I think this is kind of a misplaced emphasis, especially coming from a policy-maker like the mayor," Miller continued. "Science has the answer to criminal behavior, but not medical science. The answer lies in social science."
Peter G. Breggin, a director of the Bethesda-based Center for the Study of Psychiatry, said advocates of the chemical treatment of criminals overestimate the potential of ongoing research into the pharmacology of the brain and human behavior.
"There has been no refinement at all in these methods over the past 20 years," Breggin said. "They all simply are a way to damage the brain or the gonads. All that we know how to do is grossly intervene in this very complex, subtle organ. All of those psychiatric interventions are brain-damaging."
Even crime-victim advocates question the point of holding the debate that Schmoke encourages.
"I just don't think that science is ready to offer this kind of intervention," said John Stein, deputy director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance. "The research that I read says this is not a very promising course."
Drugs have been used to treat criminals in one form or another for at least a quarter-century.
Some rapists are sentenced to probation and instructed to receive injections of Depo-Provera, a drug that smothers the male sex drive by suppressing the hormone testosterone. Often, convicts choose to undergo Depo-Provera therapy in exchange for lighter prison sentences.
While some researchers say Depo-Provera therapy reduces the aggression that often leads to rape, along with the male sex drive, the drug is usually accompanied by group therapy to further help rapists overcome their problems.
But the drug also brings problems: its effect on male potency isn't permanent, it requires constant monitoring and produces medical side effects, including gallstones, high blood pressure and diabetes.
There are also new approaches to fighting drug abuse emerging from continuing brain research that could have criminal-justice applications.
Researchers are beginning to identify brain-chemistry imbalances associated with addictions to various drugs and alcohol as well as impulsive behavior. Researchers also have identified brain receptors that are linked to certain addictions.
And, while drugs like methadone are routinely used to block an addict's need for heroin and Antabuse is used to treat alcoholics, researchers warn that their findings on the links between brain chemistry and behavior are far from conclusive.
"There are a few drugs being tried to see if they alter the craving for cocaine, for instance," said Dr. Howard B. Moss, co-director of the Center for Education and Drug Abuse Research at the University of Pittsburgh. "However, one needs to recognize these are very preliminary . . . craving is also mediated by environmental stimuli."
Moss said that "in the remote future" there may be drugs that could "modify the impulsiveness of an individual."
Nonetheless, Schmoke says he wants to see these issued included in a much broader discussion about curbing crime.
The mayor has written to Baltimore's congressional representatives asking them for their help in establishing a national commission to study urban crime. His letter did not mention any of the controversial measures he has discussed.
Schmoke also has discussed his ideas with ministers groups and said that he plans to present his ideas shortly to a City Council task force on violence.
Schmoke began talking publicly about his new criminal justicideas on New Year's Eve, just hours after 1990's 305th victim was killed in Baltimore. It marked the city's highest homicide toll since 1972.
"The punishment has to fit the crime," he said at the time. "Traditional punishment doesn't seem to be effective."