Science and the New Rehabilitation

SMU Dedman School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 97

Virginia Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2015

81 Pages Posted: 11 Mar 2012 Last revised: 20 Jun 2019

See all articles by Meghan J. Ryan

Meghan J. Ryan

Southern Methodist University - Dedman School of Law

Date Written: May 13, 2013


Rehabilitation is making a comeback. Long thought to be an outdated approach to punishment, rehabilitation is reemerging in the wake of scientific advances. Not only have these advances in the fields of pharmacology, genetics, and neuroscience brought new rehabilitative possibilities, but the media's communication of these advances to the general public has also set the stage for rehabilitation's reprise. The media constantly pummels the general public with reports of scientific breakthroughs like functional magnetic resonance imaging, thereby conditioning the public to be more accepting of deterministic viewpoints and, paradoxically, also to be more open to the possibility of transforming individuals. This pairing of new science with its broadcast to the public has set the stage for the reemergence of rehabilitation. The rehabilitation that is emerging, however, differs in kind from the rehabilitation that reigned during the previous era. Instead of being aimed at transforming an individual's character, this "New Rehabilitation" focuses instead on changing the offender's behavior. This intense focus on treating offender behavior parallels the increased medicalization of ordinary Americans and thus may make therapeutic biochemical transformations of offenders more societally palatable. Additionally, this new approach has the potential to be faster, more targeted, and more effective than earlier approaches to rehabilitation. Adoption of this New Rehabilitation, though, may discard the humanity of offenders, ignoring the dignity to which they are constitutionally entitled. It also poses new questions of coercion. Most concerning, this emerging rehabilitation is masked as an improved version of the rehabilitation that was broadly accepted just half a century ago. Such presentation of the New Rehabilitation as an improvement over the old, without any new problems, runs the risk of lulling us into uncritically accepting this modern approach. In reality, this New Rehabilitation is a different, and in some ways more sinister, breed of the penological theory.

Keywords: rehabilitation, sentencing, sentencing reform, neuroscience, pharmacology, pharmaceutical, genetics, stem cell, cloning, gene therapy, DNA, dioxyribonucleic acid, penitentiaries, science, lobotomy, psychosurgery, erectile dysfunction, Cymbalta, Viagra, substance abuse, treatment, corrections

Suggested Citation

Ryan, Meghan J., Science and the New Rehabilitation (May 13, 2013). SMU Dedman School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 97, Virginia Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2015, Available at SSRN: or

Meghan J. Ryan (Contact Author)

Southern Methodist University - Dedman School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 750116
Dallas, TX 75275
United States


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