Supreme Court hears psychologists on prison, video game cases

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on two cases in which psychologists provided testimony. In one, the court ordered the state of California to release 46,000 prisoners to relieve overcrowding that makes providing constitutionally mandated physical and mental health care for prisoners impossible. In the other, the court sided with First Amendment-rights proponents in ruling that fining shops for selling violent video games to minors is unconstitutional.

On May 23, in Brown v. Plata, the court ruled 5-4 to uphold an earlier ruling that California reduce its prison population in order to be able to provide its prisoners with adequate medical and mental health care.

APA and several other mental health organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association and California Psychological Association, submitted an amicus brief supporting the relief of prison overcrowding. The brief argued that overcrowding seriously obstructs mental health workers' ability to provide adequate care for mentally ill prisoners and that overcrowding may exacerbate existing mental illnesses or even induce mental illness in susceptible people. In the majority opinion, the justices cited the testimony of Craig Haney, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who toured several California prisons to assess overcrowding and staffing. Haney testified that prison mental health workers are too overburdened to provide adequate care to inmates, which not only harms prisoners but also endangers the public once those prisoners are released.

"When prisons are unduly painful, they become harmful and the system begins to break down and fail," Haney says. "Prisoners can carry the consequences of that harm back out into the free world once they're released. I was very gratified to see the Supreme Court embrace that concept."

On June 27, in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the court ruled 7-2 to reverse a 2005 California law that fined stores $1,000 for selling violent video games to minors, arguing that doing so violated storeowners' First Amendment rights. Psychologists weighed in on both sides of the argument. Some, such as Iowa State University psychologist Craig Anderson, PhD, argued that violent video games increase aggressive thoughts and behaviors, especially in young boys, and therefore are a serious enough health hazard to overrule video games' status as free speech. Others, such as Texas A&M International University psychologist Chris Ferguson, PhD, countered that the research thus far is inconclusive and that previous studies suffer from methodological flaws. (For a full report on the debate, see "Virtual Violence" in the December Monitor.

APA declined to submit an amicus brief due to the lack of scientific consensus on the effects of video game violence, though it did pass a resolution in 2005 expressing concern over the potential link between violent video games and violent behavior and encouraging increased media literacy for children so they can better understand virtual violence in context.

—M. Price