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Friday, January 2, 2015

Human Subjects: Ethical Considerations in Criminal Justice Research

Human Subjects: Ethical Considerations in Criminal Justice Research

An overview of the National Institute of Health training on the use of human subjects in research begins by covering the history of ethical concerns; cases like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment brought extreme abuses in human experimentation to public attention, and ethical guidelines were established to prevent further abuses. The National Research Act of 1974 required the Federal government to regulate research conducted on human experiments, and set up a commission that produced the Belmont Report. The NIH training then moves into a discussion of the codes and regulations that were based on the Belmont Report. This discussion is based on understanding the HHS regulations involving risks to subjects and preventative measures, protection of vulnerable populations (such as pregnant women, children, and prisoners), and exemptions from the regulations. The focus of the training then identifies and explains the three principles of ethical human research. The first principle is “Respect For persons”; this involves two ideas. The first idea is that persons are treated as autonomous agents, and that persons with diminished agency are entitled to additional protection. The major consideration of “Respect for persons” is informed consent based on voluntariness, comprehension, and disclosure. The second principle to be discussed is “Beneficence”, which requires that the researcher “do no harm” and that research must maximize possible benefits and minimize possible harms, both to the participant and to the community. One issue that may arise during research is therapeutic misconception. Other issues discussed in regards to the principle of “Beneficence” are equipoise and the importance of the knowledge to be gained through research. The third principle is “Justice”, which is defined as treating individuals and groups fairly in bearing the burdens and receiving the benefits of research. This information is essential to researchers to improve their social science research primarily in that adherence to these standards will prevent public backlash against research, but also in the sense that the principle of “Beneficence” stresses that the knowledge to be gained must be important, and thus not wasting resources on “Golden Fleece Award” winners.
A clear understanding of these standards should also prevent abuse and provide better research in the criminal justice field. One example of research that provided knowledge having bearing on the corrections field was the “Stanford Prison Experiment”, in which subjects played the roles of guards and prisoners. The experiment was able to provide some knowledge on the effects that power and lack of power held on the “guards” and “prisoners”, respectively. (Zimbardo, 2014) However, some conclusions regarding the prison system that the researchers came to were wrong in that applying their research directly on the the results of the experiment to the prison system, without replicating the prison system closely enough. Guards are trained in the prison system, and not selected on the basis of a coin toss, for one example. Another study conducted in the correctional field provides examples of ethical considerations in play. “The Concord Prison Experiment” is both an example of a study conducted on a vulnerable population and provides insight as to how to beneficence may affect subjects. Convicts in a maximum-security prison were treated with psilocybin as an adjunct to psychotherapy with the intent of reducing recidivism. This raises issues of possible harm to the subjects through drug reactions, possible benefit to the subject by reducing deviant acts, and possible benefit to the community by reducing crime. Although the study was deemed a “failure” (Doblin, 1999, para.45), it serves as a case to highlight the weighing of values to be judged on the principle of “Beneficence”.

Doblin,R. (1999/2000, Winter). Dr. Leary's Concord prison experiment: A 34 year follow-up study. Bulletin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies MAPS - Volume 9 Number 4. Retrieved July 5 from http://www.maps.org/news-letters/v09n4/09410con.bk.html

Zimbardo, P. (2014). Stanford Prison Experiment. Retrieved July 5 from http://www.prisonexp.org

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