California State University, Long Beach
Inside CSULB Logo

Mental Illness And The Criminal Justice System

Published: May 15, 2015


CSULB with its peace and quiet may be an unlikely place to find the link between extreme forms of psychopathology and violent behavior but Criminology/Criminal Justice’s Robert Schug can’t imagine studying anything else.

“I enjoy all aspects of forensic psychology,” said the member of the university since 2010. “But I am especially interested in mental illness and its place in the criminal justice system. I want to know how mental illness affects criminal behavior. The media coverage of mass shootings has grown along with the internet. These ideas come into people’s minds as a grim solution to their problems. With that comes a growing public fascination. People really do want to understand it and I feel I am in a position to explain to people what we know and what we don’t.”

Schug believes his research plays a big role in understanding the link between violence and schizophrenia, noting that researchers can pinpoint specific symptoms that might be related to specific forms of violence.

“We can qualify the data rather than just saying, well, if you are a woman with schizophrenia, you are over 22 times more likely to commit murder than a woman without it (an actual finding in one research study),” he explained. “The brain does not exist in a vacuum. Biology, psychology and the environmental aspects need to be tied together.”

Changing times have brought a growing awareness of the presence of psychopaths.

“Is there more mental illness or are we getting better at diagnosing it? With serial killers, it is a little bit of both,” he said. “The victims are typically vulnerable transients who won’t be missed. A phenomenon like this predates technological America. But with technology comes the proliferation of knowledge. We learn what is happening in other parts of the country. Investigative techniques have gotten better and DNA testing has created linkages through which police departments can talk to each other. I think we as a society are getting better at noticing something that already was there.”

Schug hopes his research helps to arm law enforcement and the justice system with the tools to deal with psychopaths and individuals with other forms of mental disorders.

“I think understanding the symptoms of mental illness can aid law enforcement,” he said. “They often come into contact on a daily basis with folks like these. Today’s criminal justice system is the new asylum. Prisons and jails are the new psychiatric hospitals.”

He earned his B.A. in psychology and his M.S. in forensic psychology from Cal State Los Angeles while acquiring an M.A. in psychology from USC. He earned his Ph.D. from USC in Psychology (clinical neurosciences) in 2009, and joined the university in 2010.

“There are more people in these facilities (jails and prisons) than you find in state hospitals,” he continued. “They are overwhelmed and underequipped to deal with that population. Some people think this is an artifact of the de-institutionalization several decades ago when the state hospitals closed down. Communities were meant to absorb the mentally ill. But federal funding didn’t come through. These folks ended up on the streets with severe psychopathology. Law enforcement needs to understand how to interact and perhaps have different avenues for processing them should they transgress the law.”

Psychopathology is a combination of biology and environment.

“You are born with what you are born with and you may have a vulnerability to mental illness,” he explained. “You may have a good family upbringing and be completely normal on the outside. However, something may happen along the way. It could be a traumatic event from some sort of environmental hit which sets your brain on the path to psychopathology. Let’s face it. It all comes back to the brain. How does the wiring in the brain relate to behavior and how did it get that way? Can we prevent it?”

The technology to peer into the living brain has come a long way with the quality of the images getting better and the data is getting more valid, according to Schug.

“Yet our understanding of how the brain works is very limited,” he said. “Technology will continue to get better. The quality has increased exponentially over the years. But our ability to apply that to the criminal justice system is another thing. If I could tell you, with 95 percent certainty by looking at your brain that you will commit a violent act in the next five years, would you be willing to have me check you into some sort of pre-emptive correctional setting? You might say, ‘No’. But what if I could say it was 99 percent? What will society do with that knowledge? There will be talk about denying people their liberties and talk about sentencing and punishment. Sometimes I ask my students if they can imagine the day when they go to the DMV to hand in their paperwork and down pops a brain scanner which takes a picture and stores it in a data base. The government will have a way of seeing if your brain is vulnerable to the crime of violence. If you are, should the government do something pre-emptively? That day will come.”