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Berryessa's research, utilizing both quantitative and qualitative methods, examines discretion in the criminal justice system and how it may affect responses to criminal offending, specifically in courts. Overarching theme's in Berryessa's writings include how social contexts and societal attitudes toward psychiatric disorders and research on biological influences to behavior may affect the justice process and legal decision-making.
Presents a series of studies examining reactions to a sex offender acquiring random fortune. Finds that the stigma of criminality, as opposed to child sex crimes, plays a bigger role in subjects' interest in punitive feelings towards the offender.
Compares cases of punishment of offenders based on having a psychopathic label. Finds significant changes in the type of punishment and rehabilitation between offenders with a psychopathic label compared to one with no mental health diagnosis, but weak differences between those with a label and those with another mental health diagnosis.
Examines judges' verdicts on mental health cases in which the condition in question has a genetic component. Finds that judges are more likely to issue harsh punishment when the condition is (or is perceived to be) genetic. Finds three intervening conditions (personal experience with genetics, belief in determinism vs. free will, a lack of personal experience in mental health) that influence these decisions.
Evaluates criminal sentencing decisions in the presence of labels for psychiatric and "biological" conditions. Finds that psychiatric labels reduce punitive sentencing, but that most biological labels do not.
Surveys public opinion to find how biological risk factors affect support for the death penalty. Finds that biological risk factors do not affect the decision to use the death penalty or not, but finds a small but significant impact of risk factors on perceptions of a criminal's moral responsibility for their acts.
Conducts an interview sample of California judges. Finds that they consider high-functioning autism both mitigating and aggravating, and that such a diagnosis helps the judges surveyed understand why a certain act was committed.