February 13, 2011

Justice perverted: Sex offense law, psychology and public policy

 Oxford University Press has just released this provocative new title of likely interest to many of my readers. It's written by esteemed forensic psychologist and attorney Charles Patrick Ewing, a law professor at The State University of New York, University at Buffalo Law School.

Over the past quarter century Congress, state legislatures and the courts have radically reshaped America's laws dealing with sex offenders in an effort to reduce the prevalence of sex offenses. Most convicted sex offenders must now register with the authorities, who then make information about them available to the public. Possession of child pornography has been made an extremely serious crime often punishable by prison sentences that dwarf those meted out to child molesters, rapists, robbers, and even killers. Federal law now imposes a minimum sentence of ten years in prison for those convicted of using the internet to attempt to lure minors for sex. And the federal government and 20 states have "sexually violent predator" laws that allow the indefinite civil commitment of convicted sex offenders to secure institutions for treatment after they have served their full criminal sentences.

All of these changes in sex offender law, as well as numerous others, have been based at least in part on input from psychology, psychiatry and the social sciences. Moreover, enforcement and administration of many of these laws relies to a large extent on the efforts of mental health professionals. However, many questions about this involvement remain largely unanswered:
  • Are these laws supported by empirical evidence, or even by well-reasoned psychological theories? Do these laws actually work? 
  • Are mental health professionals capable of reliably determining an offender's future behavior, and how best to manage it? 
  • Are experts capable of providing effective treatment for sex offenders -- i.e., treatment that actually reduces the likelihood that an identified sex offender will re-offend?
Drawing on research from across the social and behavioral sciences, Dr. Ewing weighs the evidence for the spectrum of sex offense laws, to occasionally surprising results. A rational look at an intensely emotional subject, Justice Perverted is an essential book for anyone interested in the science behind public practice.

What others are saying:
Ewing …gives a lucid, objective analysis of the laws, easily separating myth from reality in this intensely emotional area.
-- Philip H. Witt, Ph.D., ABPP, President, American Academy of Forensic Psychology, co-author, Evaluation of Sexually Violent Predators
A remarkable, eye-opener of a book—Professor Ewing brings to this highly controversial subject his knowledge as both a law professor and as a practicing forensic mental health expert.
--Alan M. Goldstein, Ph.D., ABPP, Professor Emeritus, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
This book is a breath of fresh air. It debunks the media-driven frenzy of fear, hate mongering, and utterly irrational laws that do far more harm than good. Professor Ewing writes thoughtfully, carefully, and persuasively. This book should be read by all who care about—and think about—this topic.
 --Michael L. Perlin, Law Professor, Director of International Mental Disability Law Reform Project, New York Law School
 Ewing is a prolific author, and never disappoints. His other recent books, which I have reviewed, include: