Alcohol abuse and underage drinking are associated with a heavy burden of delinquency, crime, injury, illness and death. Drinking problems can produce lifelong disability, derailing individual potentials and creating tremendous burdens for families and costs to society. Alcohol use is influenced by multifaceted relationships between genetic variations inherited from one’s parents and environmental factors such as family behaviors, peer influences, ability to maintain relationships, and socioeconomic status. Inappropriate use of alcohol can bring individuals into contact with the judicial system in which genetic information about individuals may be used to argue for leniency, to advocate for more severe disposition or sanction, and to select interventions that have a higher probability of success for individuals with certain genotypes.
Genetic information may soon play a major role in adjudication of offenders. However, no policies currently exist regarding legitimate and constructive use of genetic information in the courts while protecting the dignity and privacy of offenders (both adult and juvenile), their families and their communities.
Improving judicial knowledge of how genetic factors influence individual susceptibility to alcohol misuse over the life span is an important strategy for improving case outcomes, thus reducing the burden of alcohol-related problems. Several different research approaches are elucidating the roles of genes and biological pathways that underlie diverse responses to alcohol and thus vulnerability to drinking and alcohol abuse. A picture of the genetic and environmental factors involved in progression from initiation (often underage) to alcohol use disorders is slowly emerging.
We are carrying out an exploratory project designed to address appropriate use of genetic information regarding predisposition to alcohol use disorders in the criminal justice system and to lay the groundwork for policy development. The judiciary is the gatekeeper for permitting information about genetics of alcohol use disorders into the courtroom, where such information may influence adjudication and treatment. Judges have discretion to apply and therefore set the standards of evidence; they are in charge of ensuring that judicial policies are informed by reliable and up-to-date science.
Yet few judges have had the opportunity to become informed about genetics, and it may be easy for myths about genetics to make their way into the courtroom. Such myths might include misapplication of Mendelian genetics in which a judge might believe that a life of alcohol dependence or addiction is inevitable for a juvenile who inherits an inactivated version of "the" critical gene. Another inaccurate stereotype with implications for treatment options is to conceptualize individuals as essentially driven by their population of receptor genes and thus having limited self-efficacy.
We are currently gathering pilot data on judicial perspectives. In late March and early April 2009, we mailed a four-page survey to a total of 1000 judges in Indiana, California, and Texas. The questions were mostly closed-ended and covered the following areas: use of genetic evidence, genetic influences, stigma, loss of privacy, resource assessment, and judicial experience and background of respondent.
As of August 2009, the returned survey data are being analyzed through Access and STATA. Findings will be used to support applications for funding of a larger project on judicial use of genetic information relevant to risk of developing alcohol use disorders.
Project Members at CIRGE
Former CIRGE Program Manager
Sally Tobin, PhD
Former SCBE Senior Research Scholar
Former CIRGE Research Assistant
Former SCBE Staff
Teneille Brown, JD
Associate Professor of Law
S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah
Former CIRGE Postdoctoral Fellow
Linda L. Chezem, JD
Judicial Scholar in Residence
Arizona Supreme Court Administrative Office of the Courts, Judicial Education Division
Professor, Department of Youth Development and Agriculture Education
College of Agriculture at Purdue University
Adjunct Professor, Department of Medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine
Jennifer McCormick, PhD, MPP
Assistant Professor of Biomedical Ethics and Associate Consultant
Mayo Clinic and College of Medicine
Former CIRGE Postdoctoral Fellow
T. Howard Stone, JD, LLM
Associate Professor of Bioethics
The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler