Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Postpartum psychosis stirs Texas controversy

A proposal to carve out a reduced penalty for a very limited type of infanticide is causing quite a furor in Texas.

The law being proposed by two state legislators would make postpartum disorder a legal defense for women who kill their children in the first 12 months of life. The defense would not come into play until after a conviction. Then, at the sentencing phase, jurors could hear mitigating expert testimony about the mother's mental state that could reduce the sentence to a state jail term.

Similar laws are on the books in 29 nations -- including Britain, Australia, and Canada -- but this would be the first in a U.S. state.

Currently, postpartum psychosis cases are very disjointed under the law; some women are found insane and go to mental hospitals, while others with almost identical crimes are found guilty of murder and go to prison. Women may still attempt an insanity defense if this law is passed, but it is difficult to prevail under the narrow legal theory of insanity.

It will be interesting to see whether the modest law passes. If it does, that will be a sign that the Hang 'em High state is becoming a kinder, gentler place.

It won't come easy, though. Since the legislation was proposed last week, Texas talk radio and the internet have been abuzz with amateur pundits who fear a wave of mothers murdering their children if they know they can get away with it.

What a joke. Most women who kill their children while in a state of postpartum psychosis or severe depression are so overwhelmed with guilt when they regain their senses that they can barely go on. Many commit suicide the first chance they get.

Readers will recall that Texas was the site of probably the most high-profile case of filicide in recent years. Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children in the bathtub in 2001, was found not guilty by reason of insanity and remains psychiatrically hospitalized.

After that came Dee Schlosser, who in 2004 killed her daughter by cutting off her arms. Police found Schlosser soaked in blood and humming a hymn; she believed her deed was an offering to God. She too was found insane.

The Schlosser case may be making Texans especially prone to outrage at the moment. Just a few months ago, they learned Schlosser is being released from a state mental hospital, and some equate that to "getting away with murder." But as Lucy Puryear, MD, an expert witness at Yates' insanity trial, commented over at Women in Crime Ink:

Dee Schlosser will never live a carefree life. She must live with the knowledge and memory of killing her child. She will no longer be able to care for or have contact with her other children, and her marriage ended in divorce. What kind of life will she have? Can you imagine waking up every day to that horror?

She is no longer psychotic, she is on medication, she will be monitored by a psychiatrist to make sure that she remains well. So why should she remain in the hospital; just so our sensibilities are appeased? That's a waste of money. Her being in the hospital does not protect you or your children. Dee Schlosser has no intention of coming to your house to cut off the arms of your child.
Puryear makes a good point. And probably most people would agree, when they think about it, that women like Schlosser and Yates aren't much of a danger to society. The problem is that people don't think. A mother killing her child triggers such visceral rage that the only color people see is red.

Grits for Breakfast

For further information:

Friday, March 27, 2009

Forensic Training Institute – April 16

Diagnostic Controversies In Forensic Practice

For those of you in or near California, it's not too late to register for this full-day training workshop coming up in just three weeks. It is presented by yours truly and Craig Lareau, JD, PhD, ABPP, who has just written an excellent chapter on the DSM-IV for the upcoming 6th edition of the classic Faust (Ziskin) reference work, Coping with Psychiatric and Psychological Testimony.

We are gearing this toward advanced-level forensic practitioners. Topics include:

  • The DSM in court
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder and Psychopathy
  • Diagnosis in Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) proceedings
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
The all-day (9:00-4:00) training is a preconvention special hosted by the California Psychological Association in Oakland. It provides 6 units of CE credits, and costs $175 for CPA members and $225 for non-members.

Click HERE for more information and to register online.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Gender twist on "post-apocalpytic trolls"

I've written previously about troll colonies. They are the exiled sex offenders living under bridges, including most famously the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Florida. Now, for perhaps the first time, a woman has been forced to join their ranks. Here is what one columnist had to say about this sad, and senseless, development in a world gone mad:

Woman joins sex-offender group
Guest essay by Fred Grimm, Miami Herald*

It's as if Voncel Johnson has been thrust into a bizarre social experiment.

Forcing so many men to live like post-apocalyptic trolls beneath a bridge in the middle of Biscayne Bay wasn't quite mad enough. Now they've added a woman.


For two years, a colony of convicted sex offenders under the Julia Tuttle Causeway has lived in a public health travesty, without water or toilets or electrical service. They sleep in tents, shacks, the back seats of cars in the last realistic address in metropolitan Miami unaffected by city and county sex-offender residency laws.

The numbers have been growing steadily as more convicted sex offenders emerge from prison and are consigned to finish out their wretched lives under a bridge.

T
he population was up to 52 men Monday. And Voncel Johnson.

Gender equity

In a peculiar nod to gender equity, the Florida Department of Corrections informed her last week that she too had only one residency option in Miami-Dade County -- the Tuttle. ''They just give me a blanket and a pillow and sent me . . . here?'' she asked, talking over the incessant thump-thump-thump of the freeway traffic overhead. "I just broke down.''

A community backward enough to create a subterranean de-facto prison camp of male sex offenders thrusts a single woman into the mix -- just to see what happens.

I
t's an ironic setting for Voncel Johnson. The 43-year-old woman, who grew up in poverty and neglect in the Brownsville section of Miami, told me she was sexually molested at age 6 and gang-raped at 16. ''I have a hard time trusting men,'' she said.

In 2004, Johnson pleaded guilty to a charge of lewd and lascivious exhibition (without physical contact) with a minor. She claimed Monday the charge was unfounded but at the time a plea offer with one year probation and no prison time seemed prudent. Except she twice failed to meet sex-offender registration requirements. Her probation was revoked. She did 10 months at Broward Correctional Institute.


Common refrain


She repeated a common refrain -- sometimes delusional -- among the bridge outcasts. "I never would have done that plea deal if I'd known they'd send me here. I could've fought those charges.''

But offender laws leave the state Department of Corrections no options for a sex offender. Voncel Johnson's parole officer did find her a motel room for three days last week. And she was offered a slot in a residential offender program in another county. But Johnson refused to leave Miami. "All my family lives here. I've never been any place but Miami.''

It was probably a foolish decision, but Johnson harbors some vague notion about gutting it out beneath the Tuttle until her parole ends May 5. ''Then I can find some place to live.'' She seems unable to grasp that residency restrictions are forever.

M
eanwhile, the men beneath the Tuttle gave her a battered old camper trailer. ''We watch out for her,'' insisted Juan Carlos Martin, who has been under the bridge so long that the address on his driver's license reads ''Julia Tuttle Causeway Bridge.'' He said it was as if city, county and state officials purposely cram more and more men into an unliveable, hopeless, crowded space, knowing that eventually something awful might happen. And now they add a woman.

M
artin said, "They need to get her out of here.''

*From today's Miami Herald, posted with the written permission of columnist Fred Grimm. More columns by Fred Grimm are
HERE.

Related blog posts:

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sex Offender Laws: Failed Policies, New Directions

Here's an important new book for you folks who work with sex offenders:

In response to many high-profile cases of sexual assault, federal and state governments have placed a number of unique criminal sanctions on sex offenders. These include residency restrictions, exclusionary zones, electronic monitoring, and chemical castration. However, the majority of sex offender policies are not based on empirical evidence, nor have they demonstrated any significant reductions in offender recidivism. In fact, some of these policies have unintended consequences, which actually increase the likelihood of sexual offenses.

In this book, Richard Wright critically analyzes existing policies, and assesses the most effective approaches in preventing sex offender recidivism. This provocative and timely book draws from the fields of criminal justice, law, forensic psychology, and social work to examine how current laws and policies are enacted and what to-date is known about their efficacy. In response to the failed policies of sex offender laws, this book presents alternative models and approaches to sex offense laws and policies.

Topics include:

  • History and politics of sex offender laws
  • Internet sex stings
  • Registration and community notification laws
  • GPS monitoring
  • Residency restrictions
  • Chemical and surgical castration
  • Civil commitment
  • Death penalty
  • Containment approach
  • Sexual violence and restorative justice
  • Victim impact
Richard G. Wright is a criminal justice professor at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts and a nationally known expert on sex offender laws.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Crazy but sane, Texas court rules

Remember Andre Thomas, the eye-plucking Texas prisoner I blogged about back in January? The delusional schizophrenic guy who killed his wife and two children, ripped out their hearts, and then walked into a police station and confessed? The fellow who plucked out one eye shortly after the crime, and the other eye just a couple of months ago?

Yesterday, in rejecting an appeal of his death sentence, a Texas appellate court ruled that Thomas "is clearly 'crazy,' but he is also 'sane' under Texas law."

At Thomas' trial, the defense argued that the killings were the result of insane delusions caused solely by Thomas' mental disease. Prosecutors countered that his psychosis was caused or aggravated by his voluntary use of alcohol, drugs and prescription drugs.

The court also rejected an appeal argument that Thomas was not competent to stand trial at the time of his 2005 trial:

"Although reasonable people might well differ on the questions of whether (Thomas) was sane at the time he committed these murders or competent at the time he was tried, those issues were appropriately addressed by the defense, the prosecution, trial judge, and the jury during the trial," wrote Judge Cathy Cochran of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in a concurring opinion.

Scott Henson over at Grits for Breakfast found the ruling ludicrous:

It's just ridiculous to send somebody who's so obviously nuts to death row - what's the moral point of killing a guy who'd mutilate himself to death if you let him? What's the insanity defense for if not cases like this one? … How can the court just assume Thomas' substance abuse wasn't a symptom of his mental illness - a form of self-medication, perhaps? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Psychiatrist Lucy Puryear, writing at Women and Crime Ink, agreed:
Non-mentally ill people do not pluck their own eyes out for some secondary gain…. To those of you who would suggest that I am soft on crime, consider this novel idea. How about we make mental health treatment available in the community to those who need it. Had Mr. Thomas been adequately treated and monitored he never would have killed his family or plucked out his eye. Three people would be alive today and an enormous amount of money would be saved keeping him out of the prison system. That's not soft on crime, that's preventing crime.
As one solution, Dr. Puryear advocates specialized mental health courts, which are popping up quite regularly in courts around the United States these days:
Instead of the revolving door from prison to back on the streets where psychiatric care is lacking, then back in prison when another crime is committed, these persons can be put into a system where follow-up is mandatory and resources are available.
Tragically, Thomas had twice sought psychiatric help at local hospitals shortly before the crime, but had not stuck around voluntarily and could not be detained against his will.

Competent and sane, you betcha.


The Dallas News story is HERE.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wired update on fMRI court case

Wired reporter Alexis Madrigal has just written a comprehensive update on the breaking news story about an attempt to get the "No Lie MRI" introduced in court.

Her article is online HERE, and includes links to other related coverage. My prior blog posts on this topic are HERE and HERE. The Deception Blog has additional links.

Hat tip: Ken Pope

Monday, March 16, 2009

"No Lie" fMRI to be introduced in court?

Last week, I blogged about neuroscientists' concerns about fMRI brain imaging. Critics say its scientific reliability and validity is far from established, and that if it was introduced in court, its colorful graphics might mislead jurors and judges and derail justice.

Just days later, the good folks over at the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences have learned of a pending case in California in which the "No Lie MRI" (I kid you not!) may be introduced in court to establish that a parent did not molest his child.

The case is a child protection hearing in juvenile court, so the records are sealed. The issue is whether a child should be removed from the home due to alleged sexual abuse by a parent, explains blogger Emily Murphy, a Stanford Law School fellow.

According to Murphy, a hearing is imminent on whether the fMri-based "truth verification" technique will be allowed in court. Under California's Kelly-Frye standard for evidence admissibility (which is different from the federal Daubert test), a scientific technique cannot be introduced in court unless it is generally accepted within "the relevant scientific community." The method's reliability must also be established, generally by a properly qualified expert.

If you read my blog post last week, you may be wondering how a novel technique like the fMRI could possibly meet that "general acceptance" standard.

Well, according to Ms. Murphy, the defense will argue that the "relevant scientific community" is a narrow group consisting only of scientists who research and develop fMRI-based lie detection. Tricky, huh? As Ms. Murphy comments:

Limiting the "relevant community" to only those who research and develop fMRI based lie detection is without merit, if only because such a definition precludes effective or sufficient peer-review. Indeed, it is arguable such a narrowly-defined community has a strong incentive to exaggerate its claims of accuracy and overlook unanswered questions for financial gain if such techniques are "legally admissible."

The few practitioners who research and develop fMRI-based deception detection are not the only qualified people to comment on the accuracy and validity of the technique. Statisticians familiar with Bayesian analysis, cognitive neuroscientists familiar with technical and analytical constraints, and researchers working to elucidate the neural basis of memory, decision-making, and social behavior should all make up the "relevant scientific community" for such a complex and as-yet poorly characterized technology. Further, I suspect the community of peer-reviewers that have reviewed the articles being proffered in support of the evidence of fMRI testing on deception is probably a useful proxy for the legally relevant scientific community, and extends well beyond the handful of researchers working directly on fMRI-based deception detection.
As to Murphy's last hope -- that journal peer reviewers could stand in for the legally relevant scientific community -- maybe that would help, and maybe it wouldn't. Remember, as I pointed out in last week's post, researchers at UC San Diego have found that the publishers of leading scientific journals are just as wowed by fMRI technology as everyone else, and they are uncritically promoting studies of questionable statistical merit.

To commercial ventures like No Lie MRI in California and its competitor, Cephos Corporation in Massachusetts, profit is the bottom line. Despite the controversy surrounding the reliability and validity of the lie detection technique, they are aggressively marketing the tools to clients and attempting to get them accepted in court.

Indeed, over at New York University's Scienceline, the president and chief executive of the eight-person start-up Cephos Corporation says he believes it it has a "strong possibility of being introduced as evidence" in court within the next couple of years.

Maybe sooner, depending upon the outcome of this case.

POSTSCRIPT: After opponents to the fMRI's introduction mounted a vigorous opposition and prepared to do battle at an evidentiary hearing, "the proponents of the evidence withdrew their request to have it admitted, thus ending the issue in [the] case," according to a March 25 letter from the San Diego County Counsel's Juvenile Dependency Division. Although fMRI proponents bowed out of this battle, we are sure to see more attempts to prematurely introduce brain scans as evidence in court in the coming months and years.
Postscript thanks to Phil Cave, Court-Martial Trial Practice

My previous post, with lots of links to critical research, is HERE. The image, above, is supposedly an excerpt from the actual case report.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Special issue on sex offending

For all of you sex offender specialists, the Federal Sentencing Reporter's special issue on sex offenders is now available. It's got some excellent policy-related coverage, including a historical overview by editor Michael M. O'Hear, Perpetual Panic, that is available for online download. For the rest of the articles, you need to subscribe or request them from the authors. (Law professor Corey Yung's article, along with many others he has written on related topics, is accessible for download for free from the Social Science Research Network.) The offerings include:

  • Perpetual Panic - Michael M. O'Hear
  • Sex Offender Treatment: Reconciling Criminal Justice Priorities and Therapeutic Goals - Mary Ann Farkas, Gale Miller
  • Child Pornography Sentencing: The Road Here and the Road Ahead - Ian N. Friedman, Kristina W. Supler
  • Sexual Predator Laws: A Two-Decade Retrospective - Eric S. Janus, Robert A. Prentky
  • Kennedy v. Louisiana: A Chapter of Subtle Changes in the Supreme Court's Book on the Death Penalty - Mary Graw Leary
  • Brandishing the Mark of Cain: Defects in the Adam Walsh Act - Joseph L. Lester
  • American and Canadian Approaches to Sex Offenders: A Study of the Politics of Dangerousness - Michael Petrunik, Lisa Murphy, J. Paul Fedoroff
  • From Wetterling to Walsh: The Growth of Federalization in Sex Offender Policy - Richard G. Wright
  • The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act and the Commerce Clause - Corey Rayburn Yung

Thursday, March 12, 2009

New book review in California Lawyer

My review of Charles Patrick Ewing's Trials of a Forensic Psychologist is now available online at the California Lawyer website. Here is how the review begins:

Billy Shrubsall was the top student at his small Niagara Falls, New York, high school. Thus, it came as a surprise when he didn't show up to give the 1988 valedictory address. But he had good reason. Just hours earlier, the 17-year-old had clubbed his domineering mother to death.

To explain Billy's horrific crime, his attorney advanced a theory of "psychological self-defense." The attorney retained forensic psychologist and attorney Charles Patrick Ewing, who had recently advanced the novel doctrine in his 1987 book Battered Women Who Kill (Lexington Books). Ewing's sympathetic testimony paved the way for a plea bargain under which Shrubsall served just 16 months in prison. A model prisoner and parolee, Shrubsall went on to graduate from an Ivy League university and become a Wall Street stock analyst.

But all was not as rosy as it appeared. The ostensibly rehabilitated and upright citizen still had a dark side as a vicious misogynist. He had been assaulting girls since his mid-teens, and a decade after his mother's death he brutally assaulted at least three women in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In one assault eerily reminiscent of his mother's beating death, Shrubsall clubbed a female store clerk with a baseball bat, shattering her skull.

Shrubsall's case is one of more than 600 in which Ewing has testified as an expert. But that case still haunts him, as he states in his latest book, Trials of a Forensic Psychologist: "[A]fter decades of working with the victims of violence and sexual abuse, I know all too well the awful harm Shrubsall did to the women he later victimized ... to this day when I testify as an expert, I am often questioned about my role in this case."

The review continues HERE.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

New York Times reports on Czech castration furor

Last month, I reported on the controversy in Europe over Czechoslovakia's castration of convicted sex offenders. Yesterday, the New York Times ran a feature report, excerpted here:

... Whether castration can help rehabilitate violent sex offenders has come under new scrutiny after the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee last month called surgical castration “invasive, irreversible and mutilating” and demanded that the Czech Republic stop offering the procedure to violent sex offenders. Other critics said that castration threatened to lead society down a dangerous road toward eugenics.

The Czech Republic has allowed at least 94 prisoners over the past decade to be surgically castrated. It is the only country in Europe that uses the procedure for sex offenders. Czech psychiatrists supervising the treatment — a one-hour operation that involves removal of the tissue that produces testosterone — insist that it is the most foolproof way to tame sexual urges in dangerous predators suffering from extreme sexual disorders.

Surgical castration has been a means of social control for centuries. In ancient China, eunuchs were trusted to serve the imperial family inside the palace grounds; in Italy several centuries ago, youthful male choir members were castrated to preserve their high singing voices.

These days it can be used to treat testicular cancer and some advanced cases of prostate cancer.

Now, more countries in Europe are considering requiring or allowing chemical castration for violent sex offenders. There is intense debate over whose rights take precedence: those of sex offenders, who could be subjected to a punishment that many consider cruel, or those of society, which expects protection from sexual predators....
The full article is online HERE. My Feb. 15 coverage of the issue (with links to other related stories) is HERE.
Image: Eunuch, 1749 - Wikimedia Public Domain

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Beware "voodoo" brain science

A discussion among colleagues of a brain imaging study purporting to distinguish heterosexual from homosexual men prompted me to write on this topic. Perhaps even more controversial than categorizing sexual orientation, given the current legal climate, was the researchers' claim that their technique holds promise for identifying sexual deviants such as pedophiles and the those with sexual paraphilias.

Brain imaging is all the rage these days. The past decade has witnessed an explosion of interest in the fMRI, with literally thousands of studies, several new journals, and lavish federal funding and attention in the popular media. But some prominent neuroscientists express concerns about both the science and the ethics of fMRI research. Likening it to the old pseudo-science of phrenology, they caution that the public may be lured by vivid and colorful graphics into a misleading impression of scientific precision.

So, what is the f
MRI?

Unlike the more established Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technique, which produces static images of the brain, the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) provides images of the brain in action, or as it functions. The most widely used fMRI technique in cognitive neuroscience research is the BOLD (Blood Oxygen Level Dependent) method. This method is based on the premise that activation of specific brain regions affects blood flow and blood oxygenation, which can then be measured.

What does this have to do with forensics?

In the forensic arena, probably the most widely publicized research application of the fMRI is in the area of lie detection. fMRI data indicate that certain parts of people's brains -- specifically the anterior cingulate cortex and superior frontal gyrus -- are activated when they lie. But other studies show that the anterior cingulate activates during many other cognitive activities as well, indicating a lack of specificity that makes the technique inappropriate in the real world.

Other forensic applications include the hunt for the ever-elusive psychopath (the image at the left purports to show the brain of a psychopath in action). Some criminal defense attorneys also show fMRI images of their clients to jurors in an attempt to prove brain damage and thereby reduce their clients' legal culpability.

And, as I just said, researchers are starting to apply fMRI techniques to the study of human sexuality, including sexual orientation and sexual deviancy.

What are the problems?

Neuroscientist critics are issuing increasingly vocal alarm calls over both the underlying science and the practical applications of neuroimaging. Their central areas of concern include:

  • The measurement techniques lack scientific precision
  • Claims of scientific reliability and validity are overstated
  • The fMRI overemphasizes brain localization when the brain functions more as a whole
  • Applying group fMRI to individuals is improper at this stage of the science
  • Marketing and forensic applications are ethically and philosophically problematic
Most recently, in a potentially landmark analysis, a group of psychologists based at the University of California at San Diego examined the analytical techniques used in 54 peer-reviewed fMRI brain-scanning studies published in prominent scientific journals. They concluded that the methods used in half the studies were so "seriously defective" that the findings "should not be believed."

Lead researcher Harold Pashler went so far as to call the statistical methods "voodoo" that should be especially shunned in the forensic arena:

"In the law, individual differences are the main focus," the Wall Street Journal quoted Pashler as saying. "And it often could come down to these voodoo statistics."

The article, "Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality,
and Social Cognition" (originally titled "Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience") will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Association for Psychological Science's journal Perspectives in Psychological Science. Reports the abstract:
"Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging studies of emotion, personality, and social cognition have drawn much attention in recent years, with high-profile studies frequently reporting extremely high (e.g., >.8) correlations between behavioral and self-report measures of personality or emotion and measures of brain activation. We show that these correlations often exceed what is statistically possible assuming the (evidently rather limited) reliability of both fMRI and personality/emotion measures. The implausibly high correlations are all the more puzzling because method sections rarely contain sufficient detail to ascertain how these correlations were obtained. We surveyed authors of 54 articles that reported findings of this kind to determine a few details on how these correlations were computed. More than half acknowledged using a strategy that computes separate correlations for individual voxels, and reports means of just the subset of voxels exceeding chosen thresholds. We show how this non-independent analysis grossly inflates correlations, while yielding reassuring-looking scattergrams. This analysis technique was used to obtain the vast majority of the implausibly high correlations in our survey sample. In addition, we argue that other analysis problems likely created entirely spurious correlations in some cases. We outline how the data from these studies could be reanalyzed with unbiased methods to provide the field with accurate estimates of the correlations in question. We urge authors to perform such reanalyses and to correct the scientific record."
Be sure to read this article (available HERE, as well as some of the related resources, below) before you get up on the witness stand and wax eloquent about the wonders of brain-scanning technology. Otherwise, on cross-examination you might be in for a nasty surprise.

Related resources:
PS: My followup post on an attempt to get the "No Lie MRI" introduced in a Southern California parental termination case is HERE.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

3 decades in the hole, but were they guilty?

NPR's Legal Affairs:
Case Of Angola Inmates Heads To Court

The fate of two men who spent longer in solitary confinement than any other U.S. inmate will be argued in a federal court in Louisiana. The men were convicted 36 years ago of killing a prison guard in a racially charged investigation. After almost four decades in solitary, there are now questions about their guilt.
Audio story available HERE (after 7:00 pm WCT on March 3, 2009)

Today's Times-Picayune coverage is HERE

Last year's Mother Jones interview with the former Black Panthers,
Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, is HERE

Photo: Replica of prisoner Herman Wallace's solitary confinement cell at Angola (nicknamed “the last slave plantation") by artist Jackie Sumell. Photo credit: hragvartanian (Creative Commons license)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Scotland up, United States down

Nations differ on prosecution of pint-sized lawbreakers

If you took my blog quiz of February 3, you will recall that only eight people in the entire world are serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed at age 13, and that all eight are in the Prison Nation (aka the United States).

February was a big month for juvenile crime news. We had the little 4-year-old who shot his babysitter, a plea deal in the case of the Arizona 9-year-old who shot his father and another man to death, and -- most recently -- the 11-year-old Pennsylvania boy who will be prosecuted as an adult in the shooting death of a pregnant woman.

11-year-old Jordan Brown

In Pennsylvania, where kids as young as 10 can be tried as adults and sentenced to life in prison, Jordan Brown was initially locked in an 8-by-10 cell in an adult jail. Swimming in oversized clothes cuffed up around his wrists and ankles, he could not take showers or have visitors because that would have required him mingling with adult prisoners. A judge ordered him moved to a juvenile facility, but he still faces trial as an adult.

Having just conducted two back-to-back competency evaluations of 11-year-olds here in rainy California, I can tell you one thing for certain: They are NOT miniature adults. And except when they commit crimes, no one pretends that they are. After all, they may not drive, vote, buy alcohol, smoke cigarettes, sign contracts, or even decide to skip a day of school.

Not only do 11-year-olds just not get it but, as I have blogged about previously, transferring juveniles to adult courts actually increases rather than reduces recidivism!

While U.S. states engage in a dubious competition over who can try more young children as adults, more civilized Europeans are going in the opposite direction.

In most of Europe, children under 10 cannot even be prosecuted as criminals, much less tried and sentenced as adults. The age of criminal responsibility is as high as 15 in Scandinavian countries. And a British think tank recently recommended raising the age of criminal prosecution even more, to 16 or 18.

Just this week, Scotland announced plans to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 8 to 12 to bring it more in line with other European countries.

"There is no good reason for Scotland to continue to have the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Europe," said Scotland’s Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill. "Most importantly, the evidence shows that prosecution at an early age increases the chance of reoffending – so this change is about preventing crime."

Public policy based on data instead of hysteria? Now, that's positively un-American!

Related resources:

 
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