June 10, 2019

BJS fuels myths about sex offense recidivism, contradicting its own new data

A new government report reinforces harmful misconceptions about people convicted of sex offenses. Here's our take on how to parse the data.

Guest post by Wendy Sawyer, Prison Policy Initiative*

By now, most people who pay any attention to criminal justice reform know better than to label people convicted of drug offenses “drug offenders,” a dehumanizing label that presumes that these individuals will be criminals for life. But we continue to label people “sex offenders” – implying that people convicted of sex offenses are somehow different.

A new report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics should put an end to this misconception: The report, Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from State Prison: A 9-Year Follow-Up (2005-2014), shows that people convicted of sex offenses are actually much less likely than people convicted of other offenses to be rearrested or to go back to prison.

But you wouldn’t know this by looking at the report’s press release and certain parts of the report itself, which reinforce inaccurate and harmful depictions of people convicted of sex offenses as uniquely dangerous career criminals. The press release and report both emphasize what appears to be the central finding: “Released sex offenders were three times as likely as other released prisoners to be re-arrested for a sex offense.” That was the headline of the press release. The report itself re-states this finding three different ways, using similar mathematical comparisons, in a single paragraph.

What the report doesn’t say is that the same comparisons can be made for the other offense categories: People released from sentences for homicide were more than twice as likely to be rearrested for a homicide; those who served sentences for robbery were more than twice as likely to be rearrested for robbery; and those who served time for assault, property crimes, or drug offenses were also more likely (by 1.3-1.4 times) to be rearrested for similar offenses. And with the exception of homicide, those who served sentences for these other offense types were much more likely to be rearrested at all.

The new BJS report, unfortunately, is a good example of how our perception of sex offenders is distorted by alarmist framing, which in turn contributes to bad policy. That this publication was a priority for BJS at all is revealing: this is the only offense category out of all of the offenders included in the recidivism study to which BJS has devoted an entire 35-page report, even though this group makes up just 5% of the release cohort. This might make sense if it was published in an effort to dispel some myths about this population, but that’s not what’s happening here.

Framing aside, the recidivism data presented in the BJS report can offer helpful perspective on the risks posed by people after release. Whether measured as rearrest, reconviction, or return to prison, BJS found that people whose most serious commitment offense was rape or sexual assault were much less likely to reoffend after release than those who served time for other offense types. The BJS report shows that within 9 years after release:
  • Fewer than 67% of those who served time for rape or sexual assault were rearrested for any offense, making rearrest 20% less likely for this group than all other offense categories combined (84%). Only those who served time for homicide had a lower rate of rearrest (60%). 
  • People who served sentences for sex offenses were much less likely to be rearrested for another sex offense (7.7%) than for a property (24%), drug (18.5%), or public order (59%) offense (a category which includes probation and parole violations).
  • Only half of those who served sentences for rape or sexual assault had a new arrest that led to a conviction (for any offense), compared to 69% of everyone released in 2005 (in the 29 states with data).
While the data were more limited on returns to prison,1 the study found that within 5 years after release, people who had served sentences for rape or sexual assault also had a lower return-to-prison rate (40%) compared to the overall rate for all offense types combined (55%). BJS notes that some of these returns to prison were likely for parole or probation violations, but because of data limitations, it is impossible to say how many were for new offenses, much less how many were for rape or sexual assault.

In sum, the BJS data show that people who served time for sex offenses had markedly lower recidivism rates than almost any other group. Yet the data continue to be framed in misleading ways that make it harder to rethink the various harmful and ineffective punishments imposed on people convicted of sex offenses.

The recidivism data suggest that current legal responses to people convicted of sex offenses are less about managing risk than maximizing punishment. The desire for retribution is understandable; unquestionably, rape and sexual assault inflict serious and lasting trauma. But our criminal justice system does a poor job of providing survivors of rape, sexual assault, and other violent crimes what they really want. In a 2016 survey of crime survivors, the Alliance for Safety and Justice found that, “Survivors of violent crime — including victims of the most serious crimes such as rape or murder of a family member — widely support reducing incarceration to invest in prevention and rehabilitation and strongly believe that prison does more harm than good.” But more prison time is the default response: those released after serving sentences for rape and sexual assault served longer sentences, with a median sentence of 5 years (compared to 3 years for all others combined) and more than a quarter serving 10 years or more before release.

And for many people convicted of sex offenses, confinement doesn’t end when their prison sentence does. Twenty states continue to impose indefinite periods of involuntary confinement under civil commitment lawsafter individuals have completed a sentence (or, in some cases, before they are even convicted). Proponents justify the practice as “treatment,” but conditions of civil commitment are punitive and prison-like, and this confinement is hard to justify with the recidivism data we have. The likelihood of post-release arrest for another rape or sexual assault for this group is less than 2% in the first year out of prison, and after 9 years, fewer than 8% have been rearrested for a similar offense. Those who are released at age 40 or older are even less likely to be rearrested for another sex offense, with re-arrest rates about half those of people who are released at age 24 or younger.

After prison, a number of other special restrictions make reentry especially challenging for those who have served sentences for sex offenses, including registration, public notification, and restrictions to residence and employment. (Even before release, some restrictions make it difficult for some people to leave prison when they would otherwise be paroled.) These restrictions tend to cause more problems than they solve. Residence restrictions in particular have contributed to homelessness and other problems in cities where they leave little room for returning citizens. According to a 2015 U.S. Department of Justice brief, “residence restrictions may actually increase offender risk by undermining offender stability and the ability of the offender to obtain housing, work, and family support.”

In another recent academic article, Hanson et al. agree that these additional restrictions are “justified on the grounds of public protection,” even though the underlying assumptions may be wrong: “Individuals are targeted because policy-makers believe they are likely to do it again. This is a testable assumption, and, as it turns out, not entirely true.” Their analysis shows that individual recidivism risk varies widely, can be low enough to be indistinguishable from that of people convicted of non-sex offenses, and drops predictably over time. The data published by BJS track with those findings.

Collectively, the research seems fairly clear: our responses to people convicted of sex offenses do not reflect the actual – generally low – risks they present. Instead of panicking about the small portion who reoffend after release, it’s time we talk more rationally about responses that effectively support desistance from crime – and serve the actual needs of victims of violence.

* Wendy Sawyer is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. This essay is reposted with the kind permission of the Prison Policy Initiative.  


  1. Only 23 states could provide the necessary data for the 5-year follow-up period, and only 17 could do so for the entire time frame. The BJS report only includes return-to-prison rates for the first 5 years after release in the 23 states with the necessary data.
  2. Conversely, it also only captures those behaviors that are caught by police. People who break laws after release but are never arrested would not be captured in recidivism data at all. Police presence and enforcement are therefore factors that affect recidivism statistics, as are prosecutorial decisions (for reconviction rates) and sentencing policies and practices (for reincarceration rates).
  3. While the BJS study compares overall rates of reconviction and returns to prison by most serious commitment offense, only the rearrest data allows us to compare post-release offenses by most serious commitment offense.

March 6, 2019

$28 million award for “Beatrice 6” whom police psychologist helped railroad to prison

"For years, a group of outcasts in Beatrice, Neb., were convinced they had brutally raped and murdered an elderly woman named Helen Wilson one night in February 1985, even though they couldn’t remember any of it."

That’s the lead of today’s story in the Washington Post, announcing a $28.1 million award to the “Beatrice Six” who spent a collective 70 years in prison before being exonerated a decade ago.

Of interest to this blog’s audience is the role of the police psychologist. As I blogged about back in 2008, Wayne R. Price, PhD saw no ethics conflict in helping to interrogate the suspects even though he had previously provided therapy to two of the young women. Dr. Price reportedly reassured the suspects that their lack of any recollection of the crime was because they had repressed the traumatic memory. He later assisted them in reconstructing the details of their imagined crime.

The Beatrice Six. Credit: Omaha World-Herald
As experts increasingly recognize, false confessions are not all that rare. What was unusual here was that several of the innocent suspects remained convinced of their guilt for years, leading to deep remorse and shame as chronicled by reporter Rachel Aviv in a fascinating New Yorker profile.

“You have a group of people who are led to share the same delusion, at the same time, with major consequences,” the psychiatrist who evaluated the Beatrice Six after their exonerations told Aviv. “Their new beliefs superseded their previous life experiences, like paper covering a rock.”

Joseph White in 2009, two years before his death (Nati Harnik/AP)
Remarkably, only one of the six suspects proved capable of withstanding the interrogative pressure. Although Joseph White remained fully convinced of his innocence throughout the ordeal, he was convicted anyway based on his friends’ false memories.

It was Mr. White's persistence that led to the ultimate exonerations. He repeatedly petitioned for DNA testing of the crime-scene evidence. When the testing was finally done, it implicated a different man, who by this time was long dead of AIDS.

Tragically, Mr. White won't get a penny of the $28.1 million award upheld this week by the U.S. Supreme Court. He died in a refinery accident in 2011, two years after filing his civil-rights lawsuit.

My original blog post from 2008 is HERE. Today’s Washington Post story contains additional background, commentary and links. I highly recommended the 2017 New Yorker investigation of the case. 

Hat tip: Phil T.

September 25, 2018

Kavanaugh exposed: Sexual assault as masculine theater

And the answer to the oft-asked question, "If it was so bad, why didn't she report it?"

Calvin Klein ad glorifying group rape
He unzipped his pants, whipped out his penis and thrust it in her face. "Kiss it!" cried others in the dorm room, jeering and taunting. She pushed him away, inadvertently touching his dangling member. Word of the escapade spread rapidly through the university grapevine, humorous for some and unsettling for others. 

The mushrooming allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh share a common denominator: Each took place in full view of other men. These were not furtive attempts to gratify lust. They were (if true) proud demonstrations of male entitlement and power.

As I have written about previously, multiple-offender rape is a distinct type of sexual violence. It is a form of cultural theater, in which the victim serves as a dramatic prop through which men publicly demonstrate their heterosexual masculinity to each other.

In weighing reactions to the Kavanaugh allegations, it is instructive to contrast the two disparate scripts of so-called “gang rape” that I found in a study of media coverage of high-profile cases. When the actors are men of color, we see a Feral Beasts narrative that taps into a deep reservoir of racial fears to cast the offenders as amoral savages viciously ravishing innocent victims. In contrast, with high-status men such as Kavanaugh, a Good Guys script trivializes the event as merely a youthful and isolated indiscretion.

Group rape prelude, DC Comics
But group rape is no youthful mistake. It is functional behavior. It serves a purpose. Masculinity is a fragile identity that must be earned and then repeatedly proven. The public humiliation of females (and in some cases weaker or feminine men) is one dramatic method for publicly demonstrating hegemonic masculinity. Ritualistic conquest of the feminine “other” serves to visibly prove heterosexual masculinity and celebrate gendered power while simultaneously cementing male social bonds through mutual complicity in taboo acts. 

And what better object of display than the penis itself, the instrument of maleness brandished as a weapon to denigrate a drunken woman and establish her gendered powerlessness.

This misogynist performance art is not randomly distributed. As I discussed in my earliest analysis of this phenomenon – an in-depth exploration of an incident in which a group of high school athletes in Long Island, New York sexually assaulted younger male teammates – subcultures that germinate the seeds of group rape share a preoccupation with masculinity, or the extrusion of all things feminine.

Historically, masculinist social norms have thrived in all-male settings such as fraternities, military forces, street gangs, police departments, rock groups, and aggressive sports teams. So it is no coincidence that Judge Kavanaugh came of age in just such an all-male, misogynist milieu.

There were the lascivious Friday morning announcements, usually delivered by a senior:

Kavanaugh (far left) and teammates brag in yearbook about "Renate,"
an unwitting girl from a nearby Catholic girls' school

“After the [football] game, there will be a mixer. Girls from Holy Cross, Holy Child and Visitation ... will ... be ... available.” 

To facilitate this sexual availability, Georgetown boys were in the habit of getting girls “blind drunk” on a concoction of “jungle juice”; to them, girls were nothing but “meat,” one girl recalled. The sexual abuse of girls was so rampant that more than 1,000 alumnae of Holton-Arms, the girls’ school down the road, have signed a letter in support of former alumnae Christine Blasey (Ford), saying her account of Kavanaugh’s attempted rape is entirely consistent with the experiences they too had “heard and lived.”

Most recently, attorney Michael Avenatti (of Stormy Daniels fame) is claiming to possess “significant evidence” from a reputable source of multiple house parties in which Kavanaugh, his buddy Mark Judge, and others would ply vulnerable girls with alcohol in order to pull “trains,” or gang-rape them. Avenatti is not the most desirable source for a bombshell claim like this; he is "a relentless self-promoter" who is obviously thrusting himself into the center of the controversy for his own self-aggrandizement. However, Judge’s ex-girlfriend confirms that Judge told her he participated in at least one such train, lending some support for Avenatti's allegation.

UPDATE 9/26/18 0900:  Avenetti has just released a sworn declaration by his client, Julie Swetnick, claiming she was gang raped at a house party attended by Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge. She says she confided in at least two people at the time. (She subsequently told MSNBC that she reported the assault to police.) She also claimed she attended other house parties at which the two were among a group of males who may have drugged girls in order to take advantage of them. She says that Kavanaugh was a "mean drunk" who was verbally and physically abusive to girls, engaging in behaviors "designed to demean, humiliate and embarrass them."

An assortment of other people -- both male and female -- have come forward publicly to describe Kavanaugh as a heavy drinker in high school and college who became belligerent when intoxicated. A woman going by the pseudonym "Elizabeth" has described an incident in which an inebriated Kavanaugh became "obnoxious and crude" with her, to the merriment of his football buddies, causing her to flee a party and avoid him thereafter. Additionally, Kavanaugh got into at least one bar fight in which he allegedly threw his drink on a man; his friend was taken into police custody for hitting the man with a glass. 

The reporting penalty

Kavanaugh supporters – including the man who nominated him – have retorted by asking why neither Dr. Blasey nor Deborah Ramirez (the victim of the Yale University penis-dangling incident) reported these offenses when they happened. This is a common question. It comes up all the time at sexual assault trials in which I serve as an expert consultant.

But it is the wrong question.

The correct question is: Why in the world do any (albeit few) young women opt to report sexual assault, when the deck is stacked against them and reporting will most likely compound their suffering?

Overall, only about one out of every three or four sexual assaults is reported to police. The reporting rates are thought to be even lower – as low as 10 percent – for acquaintance rapes of teenage girls and young women. Coming forward is extraordinarily courageous. But from my vantage point in the trenches, I often find myself wondering whether it is perhaps foolhardy as well, stemming from a skewed calculus of the relative risks and benefits. Because at every step – from the police station to the courtroom and beyond – reporting has unintended negative effects on privacy, social and family relations, and even on one’s very sense of self.

As the victim who is brave (or foolhardy) enough to come forward quickly learns, being on the receiving end of gendered power means that you don't control the discourse.

The “lying bitches” unit

First, there is the police problem. Police departments are precisely the type of hypermasculine milieu in which misogynist attitudes have traditionally flourished, and walking into a police station can be like entering the lion’s den.

Multiple surveys reveal that police to this day remain highly suspicious of rape claimants, erroneously believing that large numbers – up to 80 percent – are lying. [After the Judiciary Committee hearing on Sept. 27, a police officer in Jonesboro, Arkansas took to social media to publicly proclaim Dr. Blasey a liar, citing the ludicrous 80 percent statistic.] As an extreme example of police hostility, a former detective in Philadelphia’s rape unit reportedly called it the “lying bitches unit.” Accordingly, he was in the habit of miscoding rape reports as noncriminal offenses, thereby preventing them from being counted, much less prosecuted. (Such data machinations have the added advantages of bolstering police crime-solving rates while artificially lowering a community’s overall crime rates.)

Police and prosecutorial recalcitrance remains a major barrier to successful prosecution. In one county in Pennsylvania, for instance, at least 85 people, include 44 teenagers, have reported rapes to police in the past three years, yet charges were filed in just two of those cases, resulting in only one conviction. In a new report, the U.S. Police Executive Research Forum warns that high rates of downgrading or “unfounding” of rape allegations is a red flag; journalists have exposed such systematic practices in several large U.S. cities, including St. Louis, New Orleans, Cleveland, Baltimore, and New York City.

Deer on wall of shed where Amber Wyatt was raped (police evidence photo)
I was involved in one such case recently, in which a rape allegation mysteriously vanished. The 16-year-old victim, "Jessica," had promptly reported a credible sexual assault by an older classmate. Despite collecting physical evidence – both from Jessica's body and from a used condom left at the scene – police did not even bother to question the perpetrator, dismissing the rape as a “he-said, she-said” situation. It wasn’t until the assailant went on to commit at least three further sexual assaults that he was finally brought to justice. Naturally, that happened in a different jurisdiction.

Reporter Elizabeth Bruenig spent three years investigating the appalling case of another 16-year-old girl, a cheerleader from her hometown who was viciously raped while intoxicated by two athletes at a high school party. Like 16-year-old Jessica, Amber Wyatt had also promptly reported the assault to police. Physical evidence, including vaginal and anal tearing and one of the boys' semen inside her, corroborated her account. Yet no one was ever prosecuted. Her hometown turned against her, and she became a pariah. 

Outside of the U.S., meanwhile, police in some locales put the onus on victims to prove that their histories are unblemished before a case may proceed. In London, police are demanding unfettered access to vast quantities of highly personal records such as health data, school records and social media accounts, data that are not routinely collected from suspects. 

This intense scrutiny hints at the greater peril a woman faces at the next, more adversarial stage. Even when police investigate diligently and prosecutors determine there is enough credible evidence to file charges, the courtroom remains inescapably dangerous for the rape victim, a site of potential revictimization and compounding of the initial trauma. 

The "real" rapist of the public imagination
In criminal trials, a claim of rape is measured against the popular stereotype of a “real rape.” Real rapists are strangers to their victims. They wield knives or guns. They use physical force, and inflict physical injury. In reality, the proportion of such rapes is small. An estimated 90 percent of assailants know their victims. Typically, there is no weapon (other than alcohol), and the victim does not suffer visible injuries. The rape may be an impulsive crime of opportunity. Or, a victim may be targeted because she is easy prey due to such vulnerabilities as intoxication, social or physical isolation, naivety, or a desire to fit in with the popular crowd.

Acquaintance rape is essentially a confidence trick. The rapist exploits the victim’s psyche to gain her trust. The victim is taken by surprise. Girls are trained from a young age to be polite and compliant. So when caught off guard, fighting back aggressively against someone they know (and trusted up until that very moment) does not come naturally. But any dearth of physical resistance will be deployed against them later, in court. 

In other words, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the victim in the prototypical acquaintance rape has just about always done things “wrong.” Maybe she drank too much. Maybe she flirted. Most likely, she made a poor choice – such as trusting the wrong guy or getting in the wrong car – that put her in a vulnerable position. Perhaps she did not physically resist to the degree that many men – with their different gender socialization – believe that a "real" victim would. Maybe her character is flawed, as evidenced by her sexual history or her mental health.

It is especially unreasonable to expect a 15- or 16-year-old girl to have the instincts (which are born out of experience) to anticipate that something bad is going to happen, and the skills necessary to extricate herself in time to avoid the assault. Perhaps it is no coincidence that girls in this age range are at especially heightened risk for victimization.

The requirement of a perfect victim is a very high bar. Invariably, case-specific factors can be found to cast aspersions on the victim's reputation or decision-making, thereby diminishing her credibility and recasting the incident so that the suspect is recast as victim. Unless there are multiple victims (and sometimes not even then), it is very difficult for the prosecution to prevail. Often, in the cases I observe, the accused is acquitted, perhaps using the defense of an honest (mis)belief that he had consent.

He walks out of the courtroom smiling, his invincibility shield intact. For her, the nightmares continue.


It is not just the rest of the world who judges the victim and finds her lacking. The victim is her own worst critic, nagged by a profound sense of shame and self-blame. Why did she trust him? Why did she get drunk? Why didn’t she fight harder? Why? Why? Why?

In a candid account of her own sexual assault victimization and failure to report, Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan writes about the intense self-loathing an attempted “date rape” unleashed in her:

“In my mind, it was not an example of male aggression used against a girl to extract sex from her. In my mind, it was an example of how undesirable I was. It was proof that I was not the kind of girl you took to parties, or the kind of girl you wanted to get to know. I was the kind of girl you took to a deserted parking lot and tried to make give you sex. Telling someone would not be revealing what he had done; it would be revealing how deserving I was of that kind of treatment.” 

Although under normal circumstances it is the powerful who get to shape the dominant narrative and dictate who is to be believed, the Kavanaugh debacle is encouraging silenced voices to speak up – and to be believed by many. Flanagan believes Dr. Blasey. And so do most other women, if we are being honest. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been assaulted or harassed or denigrated. We’ve been made to feel small. We’ve blamed ourselves for male transgressions. We’ve witnessed these same things happening to other girls and women.

This is why Dr. Blasey’s story resonates among women, and presents such a potent threat for Kavanaugh and his base of support.

False allegations

Among his defenders, in contrast, Kavanaugh’s unwavering denial of wrongdoing is posited as evidence of innocence. But denial is only natural for an accused. If it proved innocence, the prisons would be empty. Denial proves lack of acceptance of responsibility, and nothing more.

In truth, contrary to the beliefs of many police officers and others in the general public, it is quite rare for women to fabricate allegations of sexual assault. Research has consistently found that only a tiny fraction of rape reports – perhaps 5 or 6 percent – are false, and these generally follow predictable and detectable patterns.

Protesters at Kavanaugh's alma mater, Yale University
The allegations against Kavanaugh do not fit the profiles of false reports. Dr. Blasey and Ms. Ramirez did not engage in “regret sex” with Kavanaugh. They have no personal vendettas. They are not mentally unstable or criminal fraudsters. Both are respected, middle-aged, professional women who have come forward quite reluctantly, imperiling their valued privacy and the safety of their families. If they were lying, we would expect exaggerated claims made with greater certitude. We wouldn’t expect Dr. Blasey to take and pass a polygraph exam. Even the small details point to veracity: Mark Judge jumping onto the bed with Kavanaugh and Blasey; the manner in which Kavanaugh zipped his pants after exposing his penis to Ramirez; both women's admitted gaps in memory for some peripheral details. Real crimes are clumsy and messy and awkward, just like these.


We are witnessing a wave of ignominious "himpathy" for Kavanaugh. Defenders of this powerful man lament that no man is safe, if a youthful indiscretion or two can come roaring back decades later and “destroy a good man’s career.” 

But let’s tease that apart a bit. First and foremost, the implication that all young men are rapists is horrendously defamatory of the male gender.

And while forgiving youthful transgressions sounds merciful, why is himpathetic compassion not equal opportunity? Why aren't these same individuals lobbying to end sex offender registries that impose lifelong societal exile on teenage boys and young men, often for one-off mistakes? Why aren’t they advocating on behalf of the forgotten boys (and girls) from disadvantaged backgrounds who languish in prison for decades (as chronicled by attorney Bryan Stevenson in his poignant Just Mercy)?

Kavanaugh snubs Fred Guttenberg,
father of a 14-year-old Parkland school shooting victim
Unlike some of his detractors, I am not especially worried about Kavanaugh coaching girls’ basketball. He may inadvertently communicate sexist attitudes. But, as I’ve explained here, his sexual assaults were not the product of sexual deviance. They were the efforts of a privileged male to prove his masculine dominance to his peers.

So the issue isn’t Kavanaugh's risk for sexual reoffense. It’s whether he is ethically and morally fit to serve on our nation’s highest court.

Kavanaugh has repeatedly called for "fairness" in the confirmation process. But is he himself someone who will exercise his authority fairly and on behalf of all citizens, including women? Is he someone who demonstrates fairness and empathy for those with less privilege?

We don’t have to look back into ancient history for clues to the answer. Judge Kavanaugh was a member of a three-judge panel that twice flouted U.S. Supreme Court recognition of the rights of Guantanamo detainees to seek federal court review of their detentions, suggesting he is no friend to the disenfranchised. And as he hides behind good deeds like volunteering at a soup kitchen, he callously turns his back and refuses to shake the proffered hand of a Parkland slaughter victim's father.

So, the question of fairness becomes, fairness to whom? Only to him, or to society writ large? If Kavanaugh is hurriedly ushered onto our nation's highest court, what message will that transmit – especially to today's youth on the cusp of adulthood – about fairness, and about the true status of girls and women in 21st-century America?

February 18, 2018

Four brilliant podcasts

As voracious corporations suck the lifeblood out of print newspapers, a golden age of creative online journalism is also blooming. The art of podcasting is one example, with diverse content increasingly accessible via an abundance of free apps. The viral success of Serial in 2014 popularized podcasts on criminal justice topics in particular. Some, like the much-hyped Atlanta Monster about serial killer Wayne Williams, are unabashed Serial imitators, cashing in on an innocence porn fad by casting doubt on the guilt of convicted criminals. But others are venturing beyond that now-hackneyed genre in creative and engaging ways. Here are a few of my favorites; check the comments section for some additional favorites from readers:

1. In the Dark

This flat-out brilliant podcast on the 1989 cold-case kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling remains at the head of the pack. Meticulously researched and captivatingly presented, it stands as a monument to investigative reporting, forcing us to rethink everything we thought we knew about the abduction itself, the history and politics of sex offender registries, and the broader landscape of how police investigate serious crimes. Award-winning investigative reporter Madeleine Baran and her colleagues use the Wetterling case as a jumping-off point to explore how police investigations go astray. Low rates of crime solving will continue to be the norm nationwide, they prophecy, as long as police lack meaningful oversight or accountability to reign in ineptitude. I was pleased to see that since the time I first blogged about the series in 2016, it has been recognized with a prestigious Peabody Award.

2. Ear Hustle 

Illustration by Antwan Williams, Ear Hustle
Ear Hustling is prison slang for eavesdropping, and this remarkable podcast gives us a unique chance to ear hustle on the day-to-day travails of prisoners. A collaboration between two convicts at San Quentin Prison and their volunteer photography teacher, it pulls back the curtains to demystify and humanize the prison experience. Earlonne Woods, doing 31-to-life for attempted robbery, is our warm and humorous host. Visual artist Nigel Poor serves as a stand-in for the free-world audience. The two are simultaneously entertaining and enlightening as they tackle the mundane realities of prison life: the delicate dance of choosing a cellie, furtive sexual encounters with visitors, what it's like to grow old and frail behind bars, race relations, and creative ways to keep pets. In the background is sound designer Antwan Williams, who is serving 15 years for armed robbery. The podcast reminds me of the prison dispatches from bank robber Dannie “Red Hog” Martin in the San Francisco Chronicle back in the 1980s-1990s, which were ultimately published as a book of essays, Committing Journalism. Back then, prison administrators tried every trick in the book to muzzle Martin, and that remains the knee-jerk habit of most U.S. prison administrations. So it’s a tribute to administrators at San Quentin, a standout for prison journalism, that they put their stamp of approval on this podcast. Their endorsement is paying off in good publicity. Season 1 got media buzz from the likes of the New Yorker, the UK Guardian and Vulture; like In the Dark it too has scored some notable awards. Binge fast, because Season 2 is about to drop.

3. More Perfect

Now in its second season, this Radiolab spinoff on the U.S. Supreme Court is amazing. Host Jad Abumrad, winner of a MacArthur genius grant, is pitch-perfect as he takes us behind the scenes of some of the most influential decisions of the high court -- everything from the death penalty and Native American adoption to political gerrymandering and Citizens United. Each episode is phenomenal, and comes with its own dedicated web page of further background resources. If you want to dip your toe in before binge-listening, a few of my favorites (and, believe me, it was hard to choose) included:

  • Object Anyway – about the 1986 case of Batson v. Kentucky barring race-based jury selection 
  • The Imperfect Plaintiffs – about the behind-the-scenes match-makers who ferret out cases that they think will make good case law; you’ll learn the surprising real dish on the sodomy case of Lawrence v. Texas (2003), one of the most significant LGBT rights cases in U.S. history, and why and how a young white woman named Abigail Fisher became the face for a 2016 challenge to affirmative action in higher education
  • American Pendulum I – about Fred Korematsu and the internment of the Japanese-Americans, with explicit parallels to today’s crackdown on Muslim Americans

4. Revisionist History

Most readers will know of Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker staff writer and author of a string of New York Times bestsellers including Outliers and The Tipping Point that have influenced popular thinking about the social world. Gladwell has now dived into podcasting, with a delightful series whose mission is to reexamine esoteric topics that have gone unexamined or misunderstood. While the series is not specifically on the law, it includes an outstanding two-part exploration of civil rights attorneys in the South during the Jim Crow era. Part I, State v. Johnson, focuses on an obscure rape case that taught young African American attorney and civil rights activist Vernon Jordan a hard lesson about Southern-style justice. In Part II, Mr. Hollowell Didn’t Like That, we hear about the case of Willie Nash, who in a span of just 24 hours is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to die in the electric chair -- until, that is, a young attorney named Donald Hollowell shows up and "mounts a defense that rivets Black spectators and gives them hope."

Okay, it's not forensic, but I feel compelled to put in a plug for another episode of Revisionist History that I found fascinating --  A Good Walk Spoiled. It's a philosophical exploration of rich people and their addiction to golf. Don't miss it.

* * * * *

Do you have a favorite forensically relevant podcast you would like to recommend? Please feel free to leave a comment.

A NOTE TO SUBSCRIBERS AND REGULAR READERS: In honor of this blog's 10th anniversary, I have given it a little design makeover. In addition to stylistic updates, the blog is now more secure and mobile-friendly, and elements such as the sharing icons, search bar and comments buttons should be more intuitive and easier to access.

August 21, 2017

Psychologist sues California prisons over anti-LGBT harassment

Housing unit at Vacaville
Prisons are not known as bastions of healing energy. One of the challenges faced by prison clinicians in the violent and hypermasculine culture of prison is how to uphold their professional ethics when they witness abuse of prisoners by staff. Psychologists may feel internally conflicted, but they rarely file formal complaints that might jeopardize their careers or even their personal safety.

So a lawsuit brought by a California psychologist against the Department of Corrections for alleged harassment of sexual minority prisoners is both rare and potentially groundbreaking.

Lori Jespersen, who identifies as “an openly genderqueer lesbian,” states that she was harassed and ostracized after she began blowing the whistle on rampant mistreatment of transgender and gay prisoners at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville.

Examples of prisoner abuse alleged in her lawsuit, filed this week in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, included an instance in which three prison employees “outed” one of Dr. Jespersen's transgender patients on Facebook, providing the prisoner's name and location, identifying her as a mental health patient, and referring to her as “he/she” and “that thing.”

In another alleged incident, a prison employee left a door unlocked while a gay prisoner of color was showering, enabling another prisoner who had been assaulting sexual minority prisoners to enter the shower and assault him. When Dr. Jespersen filed a report under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), she says it was never investigated. 

Dr. Jespersen alleges that due to her efforts to call attention to the abuse of LBGT prisoners, she was subjected to constant name-calling and threats of violence, including being locked alone on a housing unit with dangerous rapists. She stated the harassment caused her anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance and weight gain, and that she now “lives in constant fear of violence and harassment at work and at home.”

Transgender prisoner at Vacaville
Dr. Jespersen, 41, went to work for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in 2008, the same year she became licensed. The following year, she transferred to the Medical Facility at Vacaville, which has specialized programming for transgender prisoners.  

No safe haven?

If true, her allegations are especially disturbing in that Vacaville has long been regarded as a haven for transgender prisoners. In 1999, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, it became one of only two prisons in the country with specialized medical services for trans prisoners, the majority of whom were infected with HIV.

Dr. Jespersen’s attorney, Jennifer Orthwein, a former forensic psychologist whose practice focuses on gender and sexual orientation discrimination, said that the main goal of the lawsuit is to bring attention to the issue of systemic discrimination, in order to compel a cultural change.

“This case really has the potential to shine a spotlight on what is the key barrier to making progress to protecting vulnerable inmates in these facilities,” echoed Shannon Minter, the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, in an interview with public radio’s The California Report, “and that is this prison culture of silence and retaliation.”  

Trans prisoner at CDCR, UC Irvine study
Transgender prisoners are more than 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population, according to a 2009 study by hate crimes scholar Valerie Jenness at UC Irvine’s Department of Criminology. About 59 percent of transgender prisoners in California reported being sexually assaulted, compared to less than 5 percent of other prisoners. 

Allegations of prisoner mistreatment are not new for California’s massive prison system, which has been under federal oversight for more than a decade due to chronic shortcomings in the treatment of mentally ill and low-functioning prisoners.

The lawsuit also comes at the same moment as a major power shift in the direction of the California Medical Facility. Under the state’s 2017-2018 budget, the intensive 24-hour inpatient psychiatric program at Vacaville and two other prisons has been shifted from the Department of State Hospitals to the Department of Corrections, which has been awarded an extra $254 million and nearly 2,000 new jobs to run them. The shift has caused consternation among mental health personnel, who worry about the quality of psychiatric care and the potential for increased suicides under CDCR management.

Prison psychologist awarded $1 million over racial bias

Although it is rare for prison psychologists to engage in whistle-blowing or file lawsuits, the last time such a case went to trial, the jury awarded the psychologist $945,480 in damages for racial discrimination, a judgment that was upheld unanimously on appeal.  

That case was especially disturbing, in that by all accounts Terralyn Renfro was a highly dedicated clinician who went above and beyond her formal duties in her desire to rehabilitate the men in the California prisons where she worked as a contract psychologist. Indeed, it was her very zeal that apparently cost her her career.

According to testimony at her trial, her supervisors did not approve of her attempts to facilitate prisoner self-help groups. They were especially upset that she had set up a self-help library, which became very popular with prisoners at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione.

The manner of Dr. Renfro's firing was humiliating. Without warning, a prison bureaucrat walked up to her one day and handed her a termination notice giving her 75 minutes to leave the prison or be physically ousted by guards. He stayed by her side and escorted her out the gates and to her car. A “DO NOT HIRE” note was placed in her file, so she was repeatedly rejected for jobs at other state prisons. No one ever explained who placed the note, or why.

The Third District appellate court upheld the jury’s nearly $1 million verdict against the prison system for racial discrimination in the firing. Dr. Renfro was the only African American psychologist at Mule Creek Prison at the time.

“Discrimination does not always present as in a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird or The Birth of a Nation,” the appellate court noted. “Even the most racially intolerant manager will often appreciate the need for circumspection, so smoking guns are rarely found.... [T]he jury drew a reasonable inference of discrimination from a pattern of deception, obfuscation, and mistreatment.”

But from the information in the record, the larger impetus for Dr. Renfro’s firing was her zealousness in prioritizing the interests of the prisoners in her care over those of the bureaucrats to whom she reported. The same behavior, perhaps, of which Dr. Jespersen may ultimately be deemed guilty.

* * * * *

The complaint in Jespersen vs. CDCR is online HERE.  The appellate opinion in Renfro vs. CDCR is HERE.

May 21, 2017

Why are these men downloading child pornography?

… And how much risk do they pose to a fearful public?

Teachers. Businessmen. Military members. Politicians. Every week there’s another headline about a seemingly upstanding citizen caught with child pornography. The natural assumption is that the man is a closet pedophile, hiding his deviant desires behind a fa├žade of normalcy.

This pedophile assumption is sometimes right, and sometimes wrong. Either way, its circularity stymies deeper reflection. “He’s a pedophile so he seeks out child porn. Duh.” It is only if we step away from its micro-focus on the creep of the hour that we may detect something else going on here. Something bigger and more ominous. Something that should awaken our collective concern.

Many of us in the forensic trenches have glimpsed it: a seemingly normal guy who’s become so wrapped up in the online smorgasbord of sexual fantasy offerings that he spends every spare minute frenetically downloading massive amounts of ever-more-deviant porn, as if trying to quench an insatiable thirst.

Medical doctors are seeing another facet: teenage boys and young men with enfeebled sexual desire, who cannot maintain erections or achieve orgasms. More than half of young men ages 16-21 in one study reported such sexual dysfunctions. Unlike with the elderly or infirm, nothing is physically amiss: The problem is all in their heads.

Screenshot: Visits to PornHub in 2016
These trends are developing so fast that they've caught us off guard. With the Internet so ubiquitous, it is easy to forget its recency. “Tube” channels streaming digital video content have only been around since the mid-2000s. But in the brief decade since their emergence, video porn sites have proliferated like mushrooms in a bog: One popular site boasts 91 billion (yes, that’s billion, with a “b”) videos viewed just last year alone, or 12.5 videos per every person on earth!  

The popularity of internet porn is generally attributed to the “three A’s” – anonymity, availability and affordability. People can learn about sex and engage in experimentation without interpersonal vulnerability or fear of embarrassment. There is no responsibility for another’s satisfaction.

There is little question that the rapid proliferation of internet porn is ushering in a sea change in sexuality, especially among digital natives – those in their teens and 20s who know of no other world. Porn viewing is near-universal among male youth throughout the Western world, with average first use steadily dropping to a current average of under 13 years of age. A connection between internet porn and the sudden, unprecedented surge in sexual dysfunction is also abundantly clear: Men seeking medical help for copulatory impotence report obsessive porn use and, just as telling, they quickly recover normal functioning if they can manage to curtail their porn viewing.

With the online porn explosion so new, medical researchers are just starting to catch up to its effects. But an emergent body of neurological research paints a disturbing picture of an oversatiated evolutionary system gone haywire.

The brain is a remarkably elastic organ that readily transmutes in response to environmental and behavioral input. Take the famous taxi driver study, which demonstrated that successfully navigating London’s byzantine streets causes the memory-processing hippocampus to bulk up like a pro wrestler’s biceps. In contrast to this example of plasticity’s utility, the evidence suggests that brain plasticity is maladaptive in the case of heavy porn use.

Wearing out the reward circuitry

Credit: Discover Magazine
Evolution has hard-wired humans to feel pleasure from activities like eating and sex that increase our chances of species survival. But because the brain is not evolutionarily prepared for incessant, artificial sex, constant masturbation to video porn overstimulates the pleasure-seeking circuitry and causes both structural and functional damage. Preliminary neuroimaging research indicates that the ventral striatum (the brain’s so-called “reward center”) shrinks in size. The neurotransmitter dopamine – the “feel-good” chemical that helps animals remember experiences both good and bad – reduces its signaling. Perhaps most alarmingly, the frontal cortex -- responsible for higher-order thinking and planning -- loses grey matter. It’s as if, says researcher Simone Kuhn of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, the heavy porn user is actually wearing out his brain’s reward circuitry.

Psychologically, heavy porn use may foster a vicious cycle of avoidance and poor skills for coping with stress, much like that found in heavy drug users. People may use porn to escape their real-world stressors and anxieties, zoning out in a fantasy realm millions of miles away. Over time, this becomes a preferred strategy that is relied upon for handling stress. Experimental research suggests that such habitual pursuit of immediate sexual pleasure reduces one’s capacity to delay gratification for long-term benefit. The user becomes increasingly impulsive, spending more and more time sitting in front of his computer in a disinhibited state of chronic sexual arousal. As plans and goals are sidetracked, he feels worse about himself, leading to depression that – you guessed it – creates an even stronger urge to escape reality.

Meanwhile, habituation makes it harder and harder to achieve gratification. What was once new and exciting becomes stale and boring. To achieve the sexual release that was once so easy, the consumer must frenetically search for ever-more-exotic and novel stimuli. Today’s porn users, report the ever-helpful statisticians at the popular porn site PornHub, are no longer satisfied with “vanilla” erotica or the old “in-out, in-out”; they are searching for wilder and wilder fantasy.

With an endless menu of novel sexual stimuli available via the mere click of a mouse, this process of habituation sends heavy consumers spiraling down a rabbit hole, sampling ever-more-hardcore themes, from bestiality and bondage to myriad fetishes and – heedless of the legal risk – child pornography. About half of male porn users report that they have found themselves searching for content that they formerly considered disgusting or unappealing. Given what we know about habituation, it is not surprising that this progression to more deviant themes is predicted by the amount of time spent online, the quantity of videos viewed and the age of first porn use.

6-year-old model in fashion ad
But the progression to culturally taboo fetishes is also promoted by the industry itself, which uses the allure of the forbidden to increase its profits. Indeed, it is rather ironic – even perverse – that the very culture that condemns child pornography as the twisted fantasies of the deviant pedophile engages in the widespread eroticization of children to sell products. As British criminologist Yvonne Jewkes points out, the titillation of mass audiences via sexualized images of children can be seen as “the soft end” of a culturally pervasive continuum that at its extreme features hard-core child pornography. 

Jewkes and her colleague Maggie Wykes go so far as to call the current moral panic over child pornography a "smokescreen" that serves to divert attention from the real sexual harm to children in patriarchal societies. After all, the overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse occurs within the home and is committed by a male family member, not a teacher, doctor or even a priest.

In fact, the very term “child pornography” distracts from the incestuous nature of much of the sexual violence depicted, in which fathers callously videotape the abuse of their young daughters for profit and status within their deviant subculture.

“The images found on computers [have] led to calls for an international database of missing children, thus ignoring the evidence that most children are abused at home and so are not ‘missing,’ ” they point out. “The power of moral panic lies not in what it does address but in what it doesn’t.”

The irony doesn’t end there. In our current climate of “paranoid parenting,” in which parents are charged with neglect for letting their kids walk home from a suburban park without adult supervision, the fear of digital child images is making everyone see the world through the lens of the pedophile, thereby colluding with commercial sexual exploitation by fetishizing youthful bodies.

So, what about risk?

Broader cultural discourses aside, on an immediate practical level the questions for forensic psychologists revolve around risk: If a man is caught with illegal child pornography, what is his risk for molesting an actual child? And what is his risk of reoffending by downloading more child pornography?

The fact that reported child sexual abuse has continued to plummet in recent years despite the meteoric rise in child pornography argues against any direct causal link between child porn and hands-on offending. But direct research on child porn consumers is tricky, because such people are less than keen to step forward and reveal themselves. This has forced researchers to focus on those who have been apprehended, likely skewing data toward the more deviant and criminally oriented.

Despite this limitation, the cumulative data bring good tidings: Overall, men who have been arrested and/or convicted for child pornography offending pose a very low risk to the public.

Aggregating nine extant studies on reoffense risk using meta-analytic statistical methods, prominent pedophilia researcher Michael Seto and colleagues found that, on average, a man who has been caught with child porn has about a 3.4% chance of committing another non-contact offense. The risk he will actually molest a child is even lower, around 2%.

These extremely low risk levels -- especially for child pornography offenders with no known history of hands-on offending -- is further evidence that much of their misconduct is driven by curiosity and internet-enhanced impulsivity. Once caught, all but the most deviant learn their lesson and apparently refrain from further misconduct. 

In any body of scientific research, of course, there is always that pesky outlier. In this case, there is one loner study that reached very different conclusions from the pack (and got a substantial amount of attention in the process). That article, based on convicted offenders at a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, is regarded as an unreliable anomaly. Prisoners at the facility have alleged that they were coerced into falsely claiming that they had molested children under threat of being expelled from the treatment program and shipped off to more dangerous penitentiaries. Further, they were never informed that they were part of a research project, and did not give their consent (which if true would be a violation of the Nuremberg Code). Federal judges have been harshly critical of the study. Based on its multiple identified problems, there is even an effort underway to get the Journal of Family Violence to issue a retraction.

The first big wave of child pornography prosecutions caught forensic psychologists off guard. With little extant research and no established tools to assess risk in this emergent criminal class, some practitioners turned to instruments like the Static-99 that were designed to assess reoffense risk among hands-on sex offenders. Not surprisingly, given the obvious differences between sexual assault and online pornography viewing, these instruments turned out to greatly overestimate the risk to the public posed by pornography-only offenders.

Michael Seto has been on the forefront of trying to rectify this situation. He and his colleagues have developed a new instrument to try to distinguish between garden-variety child pornography offenders and the tiny fraction who pose a greater risk to the public. The risk factors on his Child Pornography Offender Risk Tool, or CPORT (publicly available HERE), are largely common-sensical: Men at greater risk are those with more entrenched pedophilic and/or criminal propensities, as indicated by such factors as criminal history or prior contact sex offending against minors. 

Additionally, it is sometimes possible to distinguish men with primary pedophilic attractions from those who fell down the rabbit hole by analyzing the totality of their downloaded images. The pedophiles will tend to have a preponderance of child images, often quite well organized, whereas those without fixed sexual interests in children will have a wider variety of images, including those of adults and other themes such as bestiality, bondage and the like, with child photos in the minority.

Criminologist Jewkes is correct that the current obsession with prosecuting child porn cases distracts from the bigger picture. It not only encourages a warped and ineffective approach to child sexual abuse prevention, but it also sidelines critical analysis of legal adult porn. Because it is legal and its harm is more subtle (albeit far more pervasive), adult porn doesn't generate the moral outrage of child pornography. But just as child porn promotes distorted beliefs about children and child sexuality, much mainstream adult porn promotes destructive messages about women – what they like, and how they should be treated. It fosters objectification, and legitimates violence and abuse.

Whither this social experiment?

Zooming out even further, online porn -- whether legal or illegal -- can be viewed as just one facet of a massive social experiment into completely uncharted waters.

Realdoll sex dolls rolling out this year
Echoing the sci-fi movie Ex Machina (kind of an isolationist Stepford Wives for the 21st century), the market in sex dolls and robots is booming, as “fembots” and “sexbots” become ever more realistic in appearance and feel; they're now even being programmed with "personalities" (sexual, shy, naive, brainy, etc.). As Europe’s first android brothel opens its doors in Barcelona, some predict we are on the brink of a sex-robot tourist industry. Others go so far as to predict that “sex with humans could soon be a thing of the past.”   

Although one is tempted to scoff at such alarmist predictions, in trend-setting Japan, there is much government hand-wringing over the steadily growing proportion of 18- to 34-year-olds who remain single and virgins. Whether porn’s ubiquity is a cause versus a symptom of these larger, global sea changes in sexuality and family life remains an open question. But it is certainly safe to say that online pornography will do nothing to make it easier for people to reach out and connect, either sexually or socially.

After all, there is mounting evidence that porn contributes to young people’s insecurity about their physical adequacy and attractiveness. Heavy porn consumption also weakens men’s commitment to romantic relationships. Real-life partners are mundane and flawed in comparison, incapable of living up to the idealized fantasy model. And, unlike sex-bots, they do not always obey.

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Black Mirror (my episode rankings are HERE), but in this era of increasing social isolation and alienation it doesn't take too much imagination to envision a dystopic future in which people wall themselves off in lonely cubicles, growing old alone as they desperately scour digital media for satisfaction and companionship that remains tantalizingly out of reach.

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