August 31, 2007

The ongoing debate: Does sex offender treatment work?

In the wake of the attempted rape arrest of a man who had spent eight years in sex offender treatment, Vanessa Ho of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a thoughtful article about the controversies surrounding the efficacy of sex offender treatment:

… While the overall climate for sex offenders has radically changed - with longer sentences and more restrictions - treatment has largely remained static, relying on the same cognitive-behavioral methods introduced in the 1980s.

"It's an ongoing question, there's no two ways about it," said Roxanne Lieb, director of the Washington State Institute of Public Policy, on the effectiveness of treatment. "Certainly, it's not a cure-all," she said.

Last year, Lieb's office released a study that found that Washington's prison treatment program for male sex offenders - one of the largest in the nation - had virtually no effect on reducing recidivism rates.

The study echoed a landmark 2005 study, in which researchers found that a California hospital program for confined sex offenders had no significant impact on curbing repeat crimes.

Both studies, however, have detractors who point to other studies showing that treatment works....
The full story, along with some nice graphs, is available online.

August 30, 2007

The fascinating tale of San Quentin's murals

. . . another reason not to tear down the walls

A couple of years ago, while dining in San Quentin's cafeteria, I found myself surrounded by the most amazing, multifaceted murals I have ever seen. Painted in muted sepia tones, they ranged from pastoral scenes of California history to surrealist chaos. No matter where I stood in the cavernous hall, the eyes of a gypsy woman appeared to watch me from one of the enormous, floor-to-ceiling murals.

Until recently, the murals were shrouded in secrecy. Almost no one outside of prisoners and guards had seen them, and few knew anything about the man who had painted them. San Quentin's prisoner rolls from the 1950s are long gone, so prison officials had only a name - Alfredo Santos.

The murals' sophistication, and the fact that such subversive imagery of the working class was painted during the McCarthy Era, intrigued the few art historians who knew of the work. People speculated about the artist. Some thought he might have been an apprentice to the WPA artists who painted the famous Coit Tower frescoes in the 1930s. Others speculated that he must be dead.

"You look at the magnitude of what's on those walls, and it's hard to accept that a muralist of his caliber, if he were still alive, could just vanish," an art historian told a journalist a few years ago.

About a dozen years ago, San Quentin spokesman Vernell Crittenden blew a chance to solve the enduring mystery. He got a call from an ex-convict claiming to be the artist, and asking to come and photograph the murals. Crittenden turned him down.

"I essentially blew him off, and, to be honest, I've regretted it ever since," recalls Crittenden (who happens to be a very nice man).

The murals remained a mystery for another decade. Indeed, if Marin County developers had gotten their way a few years ago, the prison might have been torn down before the outside world ever learned of Santos and the art treasures he created inside California’s oldest prison.

Another hazard has been the setting. Over the decades, steam from the prison kitchen has taken its toll. In the late 1960s, the prison tried to restore the art by applying a protective coating, but it made the original reddish oil turn brown. In the 1990s, the room's skylights were removed in another effort to prevent fading. More recently, as San Quentin has seen an influx of shorter-term prisoners, vandalism has become a problem.

Suddenly, however, the prison murals have been discovered, and Santos is enjoying a burst of fame. The New York Times carried a feature, with an amazing online slide show. An art studio in the Catskill Mountains of New York is currently featuring a retrospective on the artist, now 80 years old and living on Social Security in a small apartment his native San Diego.

So, who was the artist, and what is his story?

Alfredo Santos was the son of a carpenter and union organizer who imbued in his son the socialist spirit manifested in the murals. Santos began getting into trouble in high school, and by the time he entered San Quentin at age 24 to serve time for transporting heroin, he’d already done a stint in federal prison for smuggling immigrants from Mexico.

Two years into his term, he had the good fortune to win a prison competition for the right to paint a mural in the dining hall. He spent the next two years (from 1951-1953) on the project. As he did so, he honed what was to become his lifelong profession.

"I was always going to be an artist," he told journalist Ron Russell in 2003. "In that sense [San Quentin] was good for me. It was really the first time I could focus on what I wanted to do without any distractions."

But upon his release he hid his remarkable feat from others.

"The murals are something I never cared to talk about publicly because I didn't want people to know that I had gone to prison as a young man," Santos said.

He went on to become a successful artist. For a time, he was on the lam and living in Guadalajara and Mexico City, where he thrived as an artist; he eventually settled in a small town in the Catskills, where he had an enthusiastic following.

A longtime patron and friend recalled the scene back in the early 1970s.

"People would come and watch him work and just hang out and talk politics, art - you name it. There was always a crowd. It was its own little world, with Alfredo the charismatic central figure."

Now, thanks in large part to the notoriety over his prison murals, Santos is coming full circle - returning to the small towns of Fleischmanns for a long-overdue celebration of his work.

Photo credit: CommandZed (Creative Commons license)

The New York Times has an interactive slide show that is well worth checking out.

Photographs of the murals are available for purchase at another site.

A friend has set up a website dedicated to Santos' artwork.

Ron Russell's excellent overview of Santos' life is at the San Francisco Weekly.

Art et cetera is the Catskills studio currently featuring Santos' work.

August 29, 2007

Astronaut to claim insanity

Last year saw two high-profile insanity cases - Lee Boyd Malvo and Andrea Yates. Next up, it looks like we will be seeing an insanity trial for Lisa Nowak.

Remember the case? Nowak is the astronaut who assaulted a romantic rival back in February. She armed herself with pepper spray, a steel mallet, a knife, and a BB gun, then drove 1,000 miles - wearing diapers so she would not have to stop for bathroom breaks - to confront the girlfriend of a former space shuttle pilot she had dated.

In court papers released yesterday, Nowak's attorney gave notice that he intends to use the insanity defense. He plans to call two Texas psychiatrists, including Dr. Richard Pesikoff, who testified in Andrea Yates' successful insanity defense in the drowning of her five children.

The experts are anticipated to testify that Nowak was suffering from major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, severe insomnia, and "brief psychotic disorder with marked stressors" at the time of the offense. One news report said Nowak was also diagnosed with Asperger's Disorder, a condition with autistic-like symptoms that causes problems with social skills and can lead to eccentric behavior.

"Even the most naive observer should recognize that Lisa Nowak's behavior on February 5 [2007] was uncharacteristic and unpredicted for such an accomplished person with no criminal record or history of violence," her attorney said in a separate public statement.

A Navy captain and pilot who was fired as an astronaut after her arrest, Nowak is charged with attempted kidnapping, battery and burglary with assault. She is out of custody pending trial, wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet.

Under Florida law, the burden is on the defense to prove insanity by clear and convincing evidence. To prove insanity, the defense must show that the defendant had a mental disorder that either (1) made her unaware of what she was doing or its consequences or, (2) caused her not to realize that the behavior was wrong.

Unfortunately, high-profile insanity cases like this one skew public perceptions of the insanity defense.

In reality, the insanity defense is rarely used. Once it is invoked, proving that someone did not know the difference between right and wrong is extremely difficult. One eight-state study found that the defense was used in less than 1% of cases, and was successful only about one-fourth of the time. In 90% of the successful cases, the offender had been psychiatrically diagnosed prior to the crime. To public knowledge, Nowak was not previously diagnosed with a severe mental disorder.

Another public misconception is that successful use of the insanity defense allows people to "get off" for the crime. In reality, most insanity acquittees are sent to locked state hospitals that look very much like prisons. They often spend more time locked up than if they had been convicted of their crime.

More information on the insanity defense is available at Wikipedia. A forensic psychologist colleague of mine, Paul Mattiuzzi, has an interesting take on Nowak's case on his blog.

August 27, 2007

Pioneering police psychologist (and In the News subscriber) retiring

From the Modesto (Calif.) Bee:
In the mid-1970s, Phil Trompetter decided he needed a better understanding of what the police officers he knew experienced every day in the field.

At the time, Trompetter was a clinical psychologist for Stanislaus County's mental health department. The laws had changed. The center could take in only those deemed a danger to themselves or the public. The rules created a tension between the mental health staff and the cops because some people clearly in need of help could not be held for treatment. They were back out on the streets, where the police were left to deal with them.

"The relationship between law enforcement and mental health was horrible," he said. "So I decided to start riding patrol with our (sheriff's) deputies, to listen to their stories, and explaining to them what's happening."

That was the beginning of his 30-year career as the shrink to law enforcement officers in Stanislaus County, a ride that made him a key player in every major critical incident here during that time, including the shooting death of an 11-year-old during a law enforcement raid and the Peterson case.

It's a ride that is coming to an end because he sold the police psychology part of his practice and is retiring, or at least semiretiring.

Trompetter, 63, will maintain the forensic psychology element of his downtown Modesto practice, continuing to evaluate defendants and suspects while serving as an expert witness in the courts.
The rest of the interesting story of Dr. Trompetter’s career is online at the Modesto Bee.

August 25, 2007

New study on background factors in false confessions

A growing body of research suggests that many of the factors that lead people to confess to crimes that they did not commit are environmental: The suspect is isolated, exhausted, intoxicated, pressured, misled, etcetera.

Some factors pertaining to the individual have also been clearly established. Juveniles and mentally retarded people are far more easily steered into confessing.

Now, Gisli H. Gudjonsson of Iceland, the foremost researcher on this topic, has published a new study examining what other individual factors may contribute to false confessions. The study indicates that a person who has been exposed to multiple traumas in his or her life is more likely to report having given a false confession during a police interrogation.

These traumas include victimization (being the victim of violence or bullying) and experiencing the death of a significant other. A history of substance abuse was also associated with reporting a false confession.

The abstract of the article, published in the Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology, is available online. The full article is available for a hefty fee.

Speeding up death

How is the Bush administration responding to the Innocence Project's announcement that the number of prisoners exonerated through DNA evidence alone has now exceeded 200?

With a plan to speed up - rather than slow down - the execution process.

The plan, authorized by the USA Patriot Act, will halve the time for prisoners to file post-conviction appeals in federal court from one year to six months. Judges will then have only 120 days to decide a case.

The one catch, under the regulations as currently being rewritten by the Justice Department, is that cases can only be fast-tracked from states that provide competent legal representation to indigent defendants. And who will decide that? Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, hardly an impartial observer.

The plan to speed the death machinery comes a decade after federal reforms that considerably limited federal appeals, resulting in far fewer convictions being overturned. According to a new study by law professors Eric Freedman and David Dow, the percentage of successful appeals has dropped from 40% to 12%, and is continuing to fall.

"The notion that the federal government wants to accelerate executions in the face of known mistakes, and wants to do so just as DNA is becoming available in more and more cases, is mind-boggling," one of the study's authors is quoted in the New York Times as saying. "It will increase the risk that some state executes a person we later find to be innocent."

Legal columnist Adam Liptak's take on the issue, "Greasing the Wheels on the Machinery of Death," is available online to paid subscribers of the New York Times. (I had heard that the Times was changing this policy of requiring payment to read its editorial columns, but apparently that has not yet happened.)

Hat tip to Gretchen White for alerting me to this column.

The photo, of "Old Sparky" at Sing Sing Prison, is in the public domain.

August 24, 2007

Unintended consequences: Is predator hysteria fueling phobia of men?

The current climate of fear of sexual predators may be targeting an innocent bystander – the proverbial man on the street.

While most sexual predators are male, the converse is not true: Very few men are sexual predators. Yet, the predator panic is causing many men to fear involvement with children, creating a shortage of male teachers and youth group leaders that may have long-term negative consequences to society.

Now, an interesting column by Jeff Zaslow in the Aug. 23 Wall Street Journal is alerting the businessman on the street to this unintended consequence.

Here is an excerpt:

"When children get lost in a mall, they're supposed to find a 'low-risk adult' to help them. Guidelines issued by police departments and child-safety groups often encourage them to look for 'a pregnant woman,' 'a mother pushing a stroller' or 'a grandmother.'

"The implied message: Men, even dads pushing strollers, are 'high-risk.'

"Are we teaching children that men are out to hurt them? The answer, on many fronts, is yes. Child advocate John Walsh advises parents to never hire a male babysitter. Airlines are placing unaccompanied minors with female passengers rather than male passengers. Soccer leagues are telling male coaches not to touch players.

"Child-welfare groups say these are necessary precautions, given that most predators are male. But fathers' rights activists and educators now argue that an inflated predator panic is damaging men's relationships with kids. Some men are opting not to get involved with children at all, which partly explains why many youth groups can't find male leaders, and why just 9% of elementary-school teachers are male, down from 18% in 1981….

"TV shows, including the Dateline NBC series 'To Catch a Predator,' hype stories about male abusers. Now social-service agencies are also using controversial tactics to spread the word about abuse. This summer, Virginia's Department of Health mounted an ad campaign for its sex-abuse hotline. Billboards featured photos of a man holding a child's hand. The caption: 'It doesn't feel right when I see them together.'

"More than 200 men emailed complaints about the campaign to the health department. 'The implication is that if you see a man holding a girl's hand, he's probably a predator,' says Marc Rudov, who runs the fathers' rights site "In other words, if you see a father out with his daughter, call the police."
The story continues at the Wall Street Journal’s online site (regrettably, a subscription is required).

Photo credit: kandyjaxx (Creative Commons license)

Historic turning point for juvenile offenders in California

California's bloated school-to-prison pipeline efficiently channels poor and minority children into juvenile halls, then to the massive California Youth Authority, and then on to the state prison system as adults. Decreased funding for schools and other social programs and Zero Tolerance policies in the schools have contributed to a growing influx of youths in recent years. But now, in yet another signal that the pendulum may be swinging away from punitive incarceration, the state legislature has hit the brakes.

Under Senate Bill 81, all but the most violent delinquents will now stay in their home counties instead of going to the scandal-plagued California Youth Authority prisons. The new law (which has yet to be signed by the governor) provides funding for an array of rehabilitation services for delinquent youths, many of whom have serious mental illnesses.

States with similar county-based programs have seen dramatic reductions in criminal recidivism among youth. Indeed, proponents predict that the new law will "shrink the troubled state juvenile prison system nearly out of existence," signaling a historic turning point in criminal justice policies.

The San Francisco Chronicle has the full story.

Photo credit: "Pam I Am" (Creative Commons license)

August 20, 2007

Forensnips III: Last but not least

The ominous Mr. Big: Coming soon to a theater near you

Leave it to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to make a suspect confess.

Undercover Mounties, posing as members of criminal organizations, study their targets and obtain their loyalty with "gifts of cash, lavish meals, and booze-fueled strip-club trysts." They then involve their murder suspects in phony crimes such as money laundering and mob-style hits, complete with fake blood.

Finally, Mr. Big enters the picture. He is an all-powerful, gun-toting mob boss who "offers the target a terrible choice: Admit to a murder and receive his protection, more money. Or endure his wrath. Transcripts of these encounters, entered as evidence in courts, reveal that Mr. Big does not like to take 'no' for an answer."

The Mounties have conducted hundreds of these astonishing stings in recent years, most of them successful in garnering a confession.

The full article is online at Canada's National Post. Mr. Big is the topic of a 90-minute documentary by writer-producer Tiffany Burns. A clip from the forthcoming movie is also available online.

Epidemic of animal abuse?

With pro football quarterback Michael Vick garnering front-page news in connection with a dog-fighting farm, the Los Angeles Times is now reporting on what they call a "growing wave" of violence against animals by groups of youths. Here's an excerpt:

"Nationwide, an increasing number of animal cruelty cases are being
reported outside city limits: Horses, cows, goats and other farm animals
are being killed, authorities say, often by angry, reckless youths,
perhaps acting on dares.

"Although there are no statistics on such crimes, newspapers detail
scores of cases. Two Texas college students were indicted last fall for
slashing a horse's neck before stabbing it in the heart with a broken
golf club handle. In Pennsylvania in 2005, three joy-riding men killed a
pony named Ted E. Bear that belonged to a 4-year-old boy...."
We've seen alarmist stories before about juvenile crime waves. In fact, they've been coming in cycles since at least the 1950s.

This one could be hype, could be real. You decide.

Double jeopardy or justice delayed?

Last but not least in today’s news roundup, the San Francisco Chronicle is reporting on a man who is being prosecuted anew for a crime that he was already convicted of 35 years ago.

Richard O'Neal was convicted in 1972 of shooting a police officer, and served four years in prison. After his release, he built a steady life as a father, grandfather, and popular city maintenance man.

Now, O'Neal has been rearrested for the same crime, one of nine defendants in the high-profile prosecution of ex-Black Liberation Army members.

Prosecutors call it delayed justice. But the arrest has outraged O'Neal's friends and relatives, who say the 58-year-old San Francisco man paid his debt to society and has spent the past three decades building a reputation for kindness and generosity.

Forensnips II: More news roundups

Innovative counseling program for prisoners

California's San Quentin State Prison has created a one-of-a-kind drug and alcohol counseling program. Brian Smith, a lifer now 24 years into his sentence, is part of a rigorous training program turning prisoners into certified drug and alcohol counselors. The story is featured on National Public Radio.

Thanks to Celeste Fremon at Witness LA for bringing this story to my attention.

Teaching police empathy toward the mentally ill

The criminalization of the mentally ill is nothing new. New York City's Rikers Island is now the largest psychiatry facility in the country, and probably in the world. But the issue is getting more and more public attention lately.

Now, Time Magazine is weighing in with an article about programs to teach police how to treat mentally ill people with more empathy. Police are taught to speak softly, repeat themselves, and show an empty hand rather than a gun.

Commentary on the article is available at the Mind Hacks blog.

Collateral consequences of a sex offense conviction

Public awareness is also on the rise about the secondary consequences of a criminal conviction; that's a topic I plan to post about at greater length soon. Especially in the news these days are the collateral consequences of sex offender convictions, which can include lifetime registration and monitoring, housing restrictions, and the like. One of my subscribers, Barry Levy, just alerted me to a web site on this topic that's worth checking out. It's got lots of information and links:

Families for Fairness

Forensnips I: So much news, so little time

Much is happening in the news, but I'm too busy to go into depth at the moment. So I’m posting highlights, with links to more in-depth coverage for those of you who are interested. I hope to write a few longer posts on special topics over the coming weeks.

Two topics currently in the spotlight both pertain to commonplace police methods for obtaining arrests and convictions – the use of eyewitnesses and informants.

California considering eyewitness identification reform

At this weekend's American Psychological Association, psychologist Gary Wells received an award for his groundbreaking and influential studies of flawed eyewitness identification procedures.

California's state legislature is tackling the issue head-on. Senate Bill 756, now heading for the Assembly floor for a final vote, would enact statewide eyewitness identification procedures. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year, so we'll see what he does this time around.

The California legislature is also leading the way toward other reforms to help reduce wrongful convictions:

  • Senate Bill 511 would require full electronic recording of interrogations in both juvenile and adult cases.
  • Senate Bill 609 would require corroboration of information provided by jailhouse informants.
More research reports and news on this topic is online at:

The Justice Project

Seeing the Forest

Use of informants under scrutiny

Recent Congressional hearings put a spotlight on the widespread, secretive, and largely unregulated police practice of relying on confidential informants to put suspected criminals behind bars. Sparking public awareness and controversy over the longstanding practice were two recent cases: the fatal police shooting of a 92-year-old Atlanta woman in Alabama and a $102 million judgment against the FBI for knowingly using informants to illegally convict four men who then spent decades in prison.

An excellent column by law professor Alexandra Natapoff, author of a forthcoming book about informants, from the Aug. 16 San Francisco Chronicle is available online. Ms. Natapoff's testimony before a U.S. House Judiciary Committee is also available online.

Other coverage of the issue is at:

The blog of journalist Radley Balko

Texan Scott Henson's Grits for Breakfast blog

Drug War Chronicle

... Stay tuned - more news highlights to come.

August 18, 2007

Reports of sexual assault in prison implicate guards

Countering the common stereotype of prisons, most sexual assaults reported in U.S. prisons and jails last year involved correctional staff assaulting prisoners, according to a newly released report from the Department of Justice.

For 2006, correctional authorities reported more than 6,000 allegations of sexual violence in prisons and jails, the equivalent of about 3 per every 1,000 prisoners. More than half of the allegations involved sexual violence or harassment by correctional staff toward prisoners.

Under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the Department of Justice is required to collect annual data on sexual violence in prisons and jails. The Bureau’s press release, with links to the report, is available online.

August 17, 2007

Breaking news: Psychology-torture protest rally in S.F.

Breaking news on the issue of psychologists and torture is available online:

At PsychCentral, the article "Psychologists Continue to Debate Torture Policies" provides a detailed roster of the speakers at this afternoon’s protest rally outside the American Psychological Association convention in San Francisco.

Democracy Now, which has been covering this controversy for some time now, features an audio (mp3) interview with two psychologists advocating for a ban on psychologists’ participation in interrogations. The two are Steven Reisner of NYU Medical School and a faculty advisor at the International Trauma Studies Program at Columbia University, and Stephen Soldz of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis (who also blogs about this controversy).

Your jail is also your mental health center

This statement shouldn't be news for any of my regular readers. But you might want to know that it's the topic of an article in the new issue of Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, available online for a fee. The article, "Traumatized Offenders: Don't Look Now, But Your Jail's Also Your Mental Health Center," is co-authored by Philip Kinsler, Ph.D., of Dartmouth Medical School and Anna Saxman, JD, of the Office of the Defender General in Montpelier, Vermont.

Here's the abstract:

There are more than a million prison and jail inmates in the United States who have mental illness. As funding for State Hospitals has decreased, funding for needed community programs has often not kept pace. This has led to a population of homeless mentally ill, many of whom have co-occurring substance use disorders. Society's perhaps unconscious response has been to create 24-hour mental health units within prisons and jails. The authors contend that by doing so, we have 're-criminalized' mental illness. The mentally ill prisoner is most often the victim of extreme family turmoil including physical and/or sexual abuse, parental substance dependence, and parental incarceration. Prisons and jails most often do not provide services for this highly traumatized population or recognize the need for such services. The authors report on problematic aspects of mental health care in prisons, and on several attempts to establish 'trauma-aware' care within the legal system.

August 16, 2007

The latest news and exposes on incarceration

From Boston Review, an insightful report by Glenn Loury that's the talk of the blogosphere this week:

"Why Are So Many Americans in Prison? Race and the Transformation of Criminal Justice"

From Nation magazine's Aug. 27 (upcoming) issue, an excellent overview of the politics of imprisonment:

How can you tell when a democracy is dead? When concentration camps spring up and everyone shivers in fear? Or is it when concentration camps spring up and no one shivers in fear because everyone knows they're not for "people like us" (in Woody Allen's marvelous phrase) but for the others, the troublemakers, the ones you can tell are guilty merely by the color of their skin, the shape of their nose or their social class?

And from Business Day across the Atlantic in Johannesburg, South Africa, a depressing analysis of that country’s prison system, which closely parallels our own.

Community court set to open in San Francisco

Drug courts. Mental health courts. Juvenile courts.

All are part of a quiet movement of "problem-solving justice" that is sweeping the country, its aim to stop the revolving-door cycle of the criminal justice system.

In the latest development, San Francisco's new "Community Court" is set to start trial operations as early as next month. The court's goal is to consider the problems that led defendants into crime and provide services that can help lead them out. It is modeled on a similar court in downtown New York.

The Community Justice Center will focus on misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, such as drug crimes, car break-ins, shoplifting, and check kiting. In response to initial opposition from homeless advocates who were concerned that the new court might inadvertently criminalize people just for being poor, the court will not handle public nuisance infractions such as public urination and public drunkenness.

Journalist Bernice Yeung's opinion piece on the new Community Justice Center is available online. Ongoing news coverage is online at the San Francisco Chronicle’s web site.

August 15, 2007

The social costs of Zero Tolerance in the schools

APA convention preview

I recently came across an article stating that the public schools in New Orleans are now spending $20 million a year on private security at 22 schools. That's almost $1 million per school, up from about $23,000 per school back in the pre-Katrina day.

The social cost of such heightened school security – and in particular the "Zero Tolerance" policies – is the topic of a symposium at this weekend's American Psychological Association conference in San Francisco.

Research by the APA's Zero Tolerance Task Force found that discipline can actually increase bad behavior and school dropout rates. Punitive school policies also funnel racial and ethnic minority children directly from the school system into – you guessed it – the juvenile justice system.

The one-size-fits-all policies of the Zero Tolerance programs do not consider children’s lapses in judgment or developmental immaturity as a normal aspect of development, according to one of the researchers, Cecil Reynolds of Texas A&M University.

The seminar is at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, August 19. A list of the luminaries at this seminar is available online.

Photo credit: contraceptacon (Creative Commons license)

APA set to condemn torture

Mock executions, sexual and religious humiliation, dog attacks, induced hypothermia, sleep deprivation, and threats to kill family members.

These are among the controversial government practices that psychologists will no longer be allowed to participate in, under a resolution to be unveiled at next weekend's convention of the American Psychological Association, the world’s largest organization of psychologists.

Psychologists are the last medical professionals still willing to assist U.S. government interrogators at Guantanamo and elsewhere. The American Medical Association, The World Medical Association, and the American Psychiatric Association have all declared that their members have no business consulting in individual interrogations at such detention sites.

The issue is causing considerable acrimony within the 148,000-member APA. Many psychologists think the resolution does not go far enough. They will be lobbying at this weekend's conference for an explicit ban on psychologists in the interrogation rooms.

Psychologists' key role in developing brutal interrogation techniques for the CIA and the military has been the topic of several media exposes. Salon magazine, which has provided continuing coverage of this issue, has an excellent overview today.

"Psychologists have been involved one way or another in supporting the CIA in various forms of psychological torture for years," the article quotes Leonard Rubenstein, president of Physicians for Human Rights, as saying. "The issue is coming to a head because there are so many people within the profession who really feel that the whole integrity of the profession is at stake."

The proposed resolution is timely. It comes on the heels of a White House announcement that it may call on psychologists to participate in a revamped interrogation program. On July 20, President Bush signed an executive order resuming "a coercive CIA interrogation program at the agency's 'black sites,' " according to the Salon article. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence says psychological techniques will be part of the program, but that they will be subject to careful medical oversight - oversight provided by none other than psychologists.

The schedule for APA's special mini-convention, "Ethics and Interrogations: Confronting the Challenge," is available online.

The New Yorker magazine, Vanity Fair , and Salon have featured excellent articles on this topic.

Psychologists for an Ethical APA is spearheading protests at this weekend's convention.

Photo credit: burge5000 (Creative Commons license)

August 14, 2007

Punishment for Homelessness: Life in Prison

I’ve posted several times now about the legal conundrums faced by convicted sex offenders. In this guest column, an attorney highlights the case of Larry Moore Jr. of Georgia, facing life in prison because he could not provide the state with an address.

Guest commentary by Ezekiel Edwards

Should anyone be sentenced to the rest of their lives in prison because they are homeless?

Some people think so.

At least when it comes to the most vilified people in our society -- sex offenders. Sex offenders nationwide are carefully monitored, the public is privy to where they live, and, like many people with criminal records, they are barred from a bevy of employment and housing options.

To be sure, sex offenses should be dealt with seriously, and certain sex offenders require close surveillance. However, some states' concerns over sex offenders has transformed into outright and unacceptable animus, this time in the form of strict new sex offender registry laws.

Take Georgia, for instance, and the case of Larry Moore, Jr., in Augusta. Under state law, Mr. Moore, a sex offender, is prohibited from living within 1,000 feet of a church, school, school bus stop, day care center, church, and swimming pool. That does not leave a lot of places for Mr. Moore to reside. The options are even more limited when considering that almost every shelter in the entire state refuses to accept sex offenders.

Georgia also requires sex offenders to register an address. But given how few places the law allows sex offenders to live, and given that Georgia, like most states, invests far too little resources in helping people released from prison find housing and work, some sex offenders, like some prisoners generally, cannot find housing after prison, or lose their housing, and thus cannot report a legal address.

If it happens once, the result might be some jail time, or additional probation. But if it happens a second time, even if the underlying cause is homelessness, the punishment is life in prison. In other words, the penalty is harsher than if the offender had committed another sex offense.

Just ask Mr. Moore. In 2005, he failed to register as required, spent time in jail awaiting the disposition of his case, and eventually pled guilty. He was released in March 2006, and was left with two places to live that met the law's requirements, both hotels. He registered twice upon his release, registered again in April and June, twice again in July, when the new law took effect. But his job at a fast food restaurant did not pay enough to cover the cost of the hotel, and he was forced to move out.

Homeless, he could not provide the state with an address. Having been convicted of his second violation, Mr. Moore now faces mandatory life in prison under Georgia's law. A lawsuit has been brought by the Southern Center for Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union on his behalf.

Some think putting Mr. Moore in jail for the rest of his life is warranted, simply because he is a sex offender. Others argue that it is misleading to say that his life sentence stems from being homeless, as it ignores his original conviction for a sex offense. But no one is ignoring that Mr. Moore is a sex offender -- that is why he is subject to Georgia's cruel and unusual punishment in the first place. But his latest sentence is not for the sex offense, it is for failing to register an address as a sex offender.

Some suggest that sex offenders like Mr. Moore try to use homelessness disingenuously as a defense at trial. First, there are tens of thousands of homeless people in the United States, and included are some sex offenders. Second, under Georgia law, raising the defense of homelessness, even for those who are actually homeless, will always prove futile, as it was for Mr. Moore.

Some have suggested that Mr. Moore should have just found some rural place in Georgia to live. But this ignores the financial and social difficulties involved in moving, particularly for someone who is destitute, and also essentially condones urban cleansing of sex offenders.

Such drastic measures only further undermine sex offenders’ limited residential and employment stability, thereby only increasing the risk of recidivism. Yet unrealistic ostracism is exactly what Georgia and some like-minded folk desire: forcing anyone convicted of a sexual offense to (1) leave the state; (2) languish in prison; or, like in other states, (3) be relegated to the outskirts or underbellies of society. Florida, for instance, authorized five offenders to live under a bridge in Miami after they were unable to find suitable housing that they could afford. In Iowa, offenders have tried complying with the registry law by offering addresses such as "rest area mile marker 149" or "RV in old Kmart parking lot."

It is unconscionable to throw people in jail for the rest of their lives for being homeless and unable to secure an address for sex offender registry purposes. Herding sex offenders under bridges, or into rest areas and parking lots, thereby keeping them outside of the community and yet easily monitored (similar to, say, livestock), is degrading and inhumane.

Making simple residency insurmountable or impractical is not the answer to reducing sexual offenses. Instead, states should implement longer-term, more intelligent, and more humane strategies by paving clear paths to employment, self-sufficiency, and stability and making treatment programs widely available while continuing careful monitoring. If monitoring is difficult because someone is homeless, then the burden should be on the state to provide housing, or to relax the residency restrictions.

This column was originally posted August 14, 2007 at the blog of Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. Reposted with written permission of the author.

Ezekiel R. Edwards is a Criminal Justice Fellow at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy and a Staff Attorney and Mayer Brown Eyewitness Fellow at The Innocence Project in New York.

When teens commit crimes for others

About 7 percent of Finnish youths have shoplifted for someone else, according to a nationally representative study of 15- and 16-year-olds in that country. Their reasons reflect a combination of altruistic and coercive motives that may be difficult to sort out in the real world.

Motivations for these “crimes by proxy” include being pressured or coerced, helping an older friend who did not want to get caught, being paid, trying to fit in with the group, and proving one’s courage to friends.

These last two motivations fit with much study of juvenile crime committed in groups, including my own research with antigay hate crime perpetrators. “It is obvious that for adolescents, shoplifting for someone else is tightly interlocked with social connections and peer groups,” writes researcher Janne Kivivuori in the current issue of the British Journal of Criminology. “Even purely ‘instrumental’ property crimes, such as shoplifting, are often embedded in a system of coercive and altruistic actions within a social group.”

Questioning the autonomy of these teen shoplifters, Kivivuori links proxy crime to obedience to authority. As demonstrated by Stanley Milgram’s groundbreaking research in the early 1960s, most people will commit proxy crimes when asked to do so by someone in authority.

Proxy crime may factor into more serious and violent offending as well, blurring the lines between offending and victimization, suggests Kivivuori, who is research director of the National Research Institute of Legal Policy in Helsinki, Finland.

Reference: Kivivuori, J. (2007). Crime by proxy: Coercion and altruism in adolescent shoplifting. British Journal of Criminology.

Photo credit: drinksmachine (Creative Commons license)

August 13, 2007

Medical doctors' unconscious racism affecting patient care

Does lurking racism affect the workings of our major institutions - government, the judiciary, medicine, and education? And how, if it is underground, can we even answer this question with anything more than speculation and opinion?

Where there's a will, there’s a way.

Psychological scientists have developed a tool called the Implicit Association Test that scientifically measures unconscious racism. That is, it can tell whether you have racial biases that you are not aware of. The test is being used to empirically assess for the presence of individual-level racism in societal institutions.

In the field of medicine, for example, we know that African Americans have higher infant mortality rates and death rates from cervical cancer, heart disease, and stroke than white patients. But are these differences due to outright racism on the part of doctors, or to other factors such as socioeconomic status or lack of health insurance?

While such macro-level factors are undoubtedly significant, a group of Harvard University psychology researchers have used the Implicit Association Test to prove that unconscious racial bias affects how doctors treat heart attack victims.

The study, reported in the current (September) issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine, involved giving a hypothetical vignette to doctors about a patient suspected of having had a heart attack. In some cases, the patient was described a white; in others, he was described as black. In all other ways, the patient was the same. Doctors who scored high in unconscious racism on the Implicit Association Test tended to withhold aggressive treatment from the black patients.

The current issue of the journal also reports on another study – this one involving real patients - suggesting that similar racial factors play into doctors' decisions about whether to refer women for osteoporosis screening after a hip fracture.

These and other, recent studies suggest that the empirical study of individual-level racism is hitting its stride. Indeed, I posted recently about similar studies of automatic racial processes in the forensic realm, and how subtle racial bias on the part of police, probation officers, and others affects rates of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration.

Since unconscious bias is by definition outside of conscious awareness, and since racism is not as popular as it used to be, no one wants to admit to harboring it. Thus, it is difficult to confront without the empirical evidence of its existence.

Unfortunately, such study has barely touched the mental health field. Although we know that psychiatric diagnosis and treatment vary tremendously by race, for everything from schizophrenia to childhood Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, the empirical study remains to be done on why this is so. Until we can identify the precise mechanisms, disparities will remain, affecting the quality of care and in some cases life or death itself.

You can take the Implicit Association Test online.

Reference: Green AR, Carney DR, Pallin DJ, Ngo LH, Raymond KL, Iezzoni LI, & Banaji MR. (2007). Implicit Bias among Physicians and its Prediction of Thrombolysis Decisions for Black and White Patients. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22, 1231-1238.

Photo credit: Vanity Press (Creative Commons license)

August 9, 2007

Can government predict crimes before they occur?

U.S. to ratchet up surveillance with "Project Hostile Intent"

Did you know that when you go to the airport, a "behavior detection officer" might be scanning your face for hostile micro-aggressions?

You ain't seen nothing yet.

The Department of Homeland Security is set to launch Project Hostile Intent (PHI), which will use computers to scan the 400 million travelers who enter the U.S. each year for physical signs of hostile intent.

The Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency hopes to install sensors that will monitor people's pulse, perspiration rate, gait, breathing, eye movements, and other physiological signs through video and audio surveillance and by bouncing lasers or microwaves off your skin.

The full story, "Can you catch a killer before they commit a crime?" will appear in the Aug. 11 issue of New Scientist. Here’s the ominous lead-in:
"IMAGINE the scene. You arrive at New York's JFK airport, tired after a long flight, and trudge into line at passport control. As you wait, a battery of lasers, cameras, eye trackers and microphones begin secretly compiling a dossier of information about your body. The computer that is processing the data from these hidden sensors is not searching for explosives, knives, guns or contraband. Instead, it is working on a much tougher problem: whether you are thinking about committing a terrorist act, either imminently, or at sometime during your stay in the US. If the computer decides that might be your intention, you will be led off for interview with security officers."
Last night, I went to see the Bourne Supremacy, which featured the type of all-knowing, all-seeing state surveillance that is a staple of science fiction books and movies. (One of my favorite such films was 1997's Gattaca.) Watching Bourne (which I enjoyed despite its flaws), I thought the sophistication of the surveillance technology seemed a bit far-fetched. But now, I’m not so sure.

After all, New York City is poised to implement "ring of steel," a Homeland Security-funded system of interconnected license plate readers, surveillance cameras, a coordination center and roadblocks that can swing into action at a moment's notice. If the system works, I’m sure it will be coming soon to a city near you.

If "Traveling while Black" (or Arab) is perilous now, it will be a lot more difficult, and traumatic, once security forces are empowered to use subjective factors like pulse rate and gait as indicators of nefarious intent.

Photo credit: gruntzooki (bird surveillance cameras at Oakland airport), Creative Commons license. Also see Flickr's Panopticon network, dedicated to photographing surveillance cameras.

Guest commentary: 'Predator' gets caught in its own trappings

As "To Catch a Predator" spins off into ever-more-ludicrous dimensions such as "To Catch an i-Jacker," a newspaper columnist ponders what about American culture spawns such voyeurism

by Steven Winn

S.F. Chronicle, August 8, 2007, posted with the written permission of the author

It's a familiar stop on a night of channel surfing. The ballgame's over, the kids are tucked in bed, the dishwasher's whirring - everything's primed for a spell of vicarious "watchdog" justice. It's time "To Catch a Predator."

That's the title of a queasily transfixing series about uncovering and punishing pedophiles that's been airing on the TV newsmagazine "Dateline NBC" since 2004. The network's sister channel, MSNBC, faithfully reruns episodes, just as religious channels recycle the best sermons of their ace televangelists. MSNBC is where many nocturnal channel browsers find these real-life mini morality plays.

Why are we so eager to watch these televised takedowns? Are we witnessing an activist form of TV journalism that bracingly takes grave matters into its own hands? Or are those hands behaving in ways that bear much closer scrutiny, doubt and reflection? A pending lawsuit and an unsettling new piece in Esquire magazine are fuel for thought.

The show's concept is simple: Adults from a group called Perverted Justice pose as children online to attract men trolling for sex. A meeting is arranged by telephone. The purported predator arrives at the meeting place, a house that has been rigged with multiple hidden cameras. With the videotape rolling, the show's clean-cut, youthful-looking star, Chris Hansen, enters and begins his solemn litany of revelation.

Depending on the visitor's response - some make excuses or invent other reasons for their presence, some walk out the door, some confess - Hansen might read from a printed log of the salacious online chat that's preceded the visit. Back in the studio, more evidence is piled on. Sometimes, we learn, the man has sent pictures or videos of his penis to the child he thinks he's going to meet. We might be told about a prior record of sexual solicitations.

Finally, the man is invited to leave, if he hasn't done so already. As soon as he's outside the house, local law enforcement teams rush him, wrestle him to the ground and make the arrest. Off he goes to be booked, arraigned and often, as a postscript indicates, convicted and jailed. One "Predator" show was shot locally, in Petaluma.

There are a number of ways to view the hold that "To Catch a Predator" exerts on the viewer. There is, of course, the power of its apparent authenticity, in high contrast to the numbingly synthetic "reality" that reality TV sells in all its iterations. NBC's "Predator" is like some deadly serious episode of "Candid Camera." Instead of laughing along with the folly of human nature, we're caught up short and cleave instinctively to Hansen's stoic righteousness.

And righteous is what we feel we are right to be. Adults seeking out children and young teenagers for sex carries the unmitigated onus of evil, the stench of the powerful preying on the powerless. Unlike many other crimes - robbery, assault, maybe even murder, which can emerge from a tangled web of human interaction, history and passion-fueled circumstances - sexual predation seems chillingly unambiguous.

For similar reasons, the specific allegations in the dogfighting case against football star Michael Vick and his associates carry a blackly poisonous stain. (Dogs were reportedly bludgeoned, hanged or electrocuted if they failed to perform well in fights.) Animals, like children, are innocent and defenseless, we feel. They require our vigilant unconditional protection.

Watching the parade of alleged pedophiles on a recent rerun of "To Catch a Predator," I felt a stony indifference to the nabbed men's deer-in-the-headlights looks and wheedling prevarications. "People play roles," one said of chat-room life. "People just talk." Another insisted he doesn't need 14-year-old girls. "I can get all kinda girls." A third said he was deeply sorry and would never do it again. In an hour, the show perp-walked 11 men, ages 21 to 49, past the cameras. By the end of it, I felt dragged out and worn down, as if I'd been on some marathon stakeout myself.

In May, in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit filed by a former "Dateline" employee, Marsha Bartel outlined a series of ethical misgivings about "To Catch a Predator" that some media critics have raised themselves. Among other things, Bartel argues that paying Perverted Justice for its services gives the group "a financial incentive to lie to and trick targets of its sting." She's not the only ex-employee, incidentally, to discuss the show's underlying methods. Former "Dateline" anchor Stone Phillips has said that in many of the contrived Internet chats, "the decoy is the first to bring up the subject of sex."

Bartel's assertions about the relationship between NBC and law enforcement are more disturbing. Contrary to the network's claim of "parallel investigations" with police, she says, "Dateline" pays or otherwise reimburses law enforcement officials, trades its video services for information and for dramatically staged arrests, and illegally provides video feeds to prosecutors.

A piece in the forthcoming September Esquire turns the spotlight on the problem in graphic and grim detail. (Esquire, like The Chronicle, is a Hearst publication.) In telling the story of a Dateline "Predator" operation that ended in a man's suicide by gunshot when the police stormed his house with NBC's cameras poised outside, writer Luke Dittrich portrays a network hungry for real-life drama at any cost and a Murphy, Texas, police department only too avid to play along. When the man, a former district attorney named Bill Conradt Jr., failed to show up at the trysting house as arranged, Esquire shows, NBC pressed police to obtain a warrant for his arrest and force a confrontation at his own home. The last footage shot was of the SWAT team loading Conradt's body into the ambulance.

In a mordant footnote to the tragedy, Dittrich reports that because of various problems, including crime venue problems and the lack of proper warrants, the county's district attorney was unable to prosecute any of the 23 men arrested in Murphy during the Texas "Dateline" encampment.

While NBC doesn't comment on future "To Catch a Predator" episodes, the network plainly feels it has established a vital franchise. Spin-offs include "To Catch a Car Thief," "To Catch an ID Thief," "To Catch a Con Man" and the ludicrous "To Catch an i-Jacker." The latter involves leaving iPods around in public and tracking the people who pick them up. "So what's the lesson here?" Hansen asked a teenager who was caught and hauled before the cameras on a recent "Dateline." "Don't steal," he dutifully replied.

Like the multiple versions of "Law & Order," the "To Catch" series may satisfy a simple desire to see the cleansing social order working properly. But in blurring the lines between law enforcement and entertainment, police procedure and sleazy curiosity, "Dateline" is engaging in a much more vexing business, one that's closer to the car-chase videos of "Cops" than it is to some new form of TV justice.

The series capitalizes on America's fantasy of being on the inside track, embedded, empowered by the media's intoxicating blend of intimacy and might. In the end, as Bartel puts it in her lawsuit, NBC may just be feeding "American culture's interest in public humiliation." It may be irresistible to watch, but maybe the old model is worth rethinking. Let law enforcement do law enforcement, and let the media pay very close attention to how it's doing it.

E-mail Steven Winn

Yesterday’s features news and video about the current court case of prominent oncologist Maurice Wolin, recently trapped by Dateline NBC.

My previous post on the Predator series is here.

August 8, 2007

Happy ending for wrongfully deported Mexican-American man

Two months ago, I posted here about a cognitively handicapped Mexican-American man who was illegally deported to Mexico and disappeared.

Pedro Guzman, born in the United States, was mistakenly deported after being jailed in his native Los Angeles on a minor trespassing charge. A former Special Education student, the 29-year-old is described by family members as a slow learner with memory problems.

In the last three months, Guzman said he made repeated attempts to get home, but was turned away by U.S. border agents.

Meanwhile, as he walked the 100 miles from Tijuana to Mexicali, eating out of garbage cans and bathing in rivers, his family was desperately searching for him. The family's pleas for help from both the U.S. and Mexican governments fell on death ears.

Guzman was finally picked up when U.S. authorities at the Calexico border realized he had an outstanding arrest warrant. The warrant, ironically, was for missing probation hearings during the time that he was trying to get home.

Although the U.S. government had promised to immediately notify the family if Guzman was located, he was instead jailed for two days before the family was notified and he was released.

Guzman appeared traumatized and was nearly unrecognizable, family members said at a news conference.

The family's last contact with Mr. Guzman had been on May 11, when he called his sister-in-law from a borrowed cell phone to say he had been deported. The call cut off. Although family members rushed to Tijuana, they were unable to find him.

This is not the first time that a U.S. native has been illegally deported. A similar case 30 years ago also involved a Mexican-American who was mentally disturbed and unable to care for himself. Like Guzman, Daniel Cardona of Clovis (near Fresno) wandered the streets of Tijuana for nearly five months while his frantic family searched for him.

The latest on the Guzman case is at the ACLU of Southern California’s web site.

AP coverage is online through the San Francisco Chronicle.

The “Witness LA” blog has also been covering the story.

But for the most extensive coverage of all, see the excellent L.A. Weekly feature by Daniel Hernandez, “Lost in Tijuana."

Photo (Guzman and his brother) posted with the permission of the ACLU of Southern California.

August 7, 2007

Sentencing reform may target parole system

California is the nation’s uncontested leader in criminal recidivism. We send about 7 out of 10 released prisoners back to prison within two years. That’s a far greater proportion than any other state.


That’s easy to answer. Unlike some other states, California puts everyone coming out of prison on parole. Then, when they miss an appointment with a parole agent or have a “dirty” urinalysis, it’s back to prison for them.

These “technical violators” make up about two-thirds of prison admissions at any given time. Most are non-violent, non-serious offenders. They rotate in and out of prison, staying for an average of five months each time, at an estimated cost of $900 million a year.

Individual parole agents make these decisions, with little or no public oversight.

So, what would happen if traditional parole were eliminated entirely?

That's an intriguing idea that will be debated soon by the American Law Institute as part of its ongoing revision of the Model Penal Code.

The topic came up this week at the annual conference of the National Association of Sentencing Commissions, meeting this week in Oklahoma City. Officials from 27 states - including lawmakers, attorneys, judges, professors, researchers and corrections officials – are meeting under the theme "New Frontiers in Sentencing." And reducing imprisonment through drastic sentencing reform is one aspect of that theme.

"Every state that has tried, beginning with Minnesota and Washington in the 1980s, to deliberately take control of prison growth has had success in doing it," conference presenter Kevin Reitz, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, was quoted by the AP as saying. "An awful lot have done that without sacrificing public safety.”

"We're going to have to do something different,” agreed Oklahoma state Senator Richard Lerblance. “We're going to have to get over the thought that we're soft on crime because we're addressing these issues. We're going to have to get over the idea that we're going to lock them up and leave them there."

The tone of this conference is yet more evidence of the pendulum swing that I’ve been posting about recently. Only, the reformist mood may be slower to reach California, which isn't even a member of the federal and multi-state sentencing consortium.

Hat tip to the “Sentencing Law & Policy” blog for alerting me to this conference. Photo credit: "Remuz" (Creative Commons license).

For more on the California parole system, see "California's Parole Experiment,"
California Journal, August 2002.

August 6, 2007

International criminal justice problems spawn unusual solutions

"Mobile courts," "ghetto courts" spring up in India and Jamaica

Most Americans tend to be pretty ignorant about the rest of the world. I'm no exception. I have to admit that, while I write a lot about criminal justice issues, I don't know as much as I'd like to about the systems in many other nations. So, I thought I'd share a bit that I just learned about a couple of widely disparate criminal justice trends.

First, India:

We know that our own prisons are overcrowded, but did you know that theirs are, too? And that they, like us, are implementing a massive new prison construction program to augment and replace their old prisons, mostly built by the British between 1860 and 1930?

Much of the problem of overcrowding in Indian prisons stems from a massive backlog of "undertrials," according to yesterday's Times of India. That term, I gathered, is the Indian word for pretrial detainee. About two-thirds of the prison population are "undertrials."

And now, in an innovative effort to make the court system more accessible "to remote and backward areas," India has just launched its first "mobile court."

The mobile court is housed in a bus and staffed like a regular court to conduct full civil and criminal trials. It will travel to different regions each week, starting in a very "backward" district with an "abysmal literacy rate," according to yesterday's edition of The Hindu newspaper.

Meanwhile, a different trend of vigilante-style courts is emerging in Jamaica, apparently due to popular mistrust of the official police and court system.

The underground community tribunals in urban ghettos mete out their own forms of justice, including beatings, the breaking of bones and "sun-dance," a punishment in which an individual must "kneel on bottle-stoppers in the sun for prolonged periods, according to an editorial in yesterday's Jamaica Gleaner.

The editorial, by retired judge and former government minister Hugh Small, sounded an alarm over the potential human rights issues raised by such courts.

"Why has nothing been done, especially when they are said to impose punishments that would be regarded by the formal justice system as being cruel and inhuman?" asked Small. "If the existence of these courts is accepted in these communities as preferable to the formal system, what does this mean for nurturing awareness for the right to challenge abuses of human rights by the citizenry and the police?"

Well, that's it for this little dose of international perspective.

New study on desistance from crime

Every day, about 1,600 people are released from prisons in the United States. Until now, the primary focus has been on the "R word" - recidivism.

In a promising trend that I’ve posted about previously, some academicians and policy makers are turning to the "D" word - desistance.

As part of this welcome trend comes a new study by the National Research Council. The study, Parole, Desistance from Crime, and Community Integration, points to evidence-based interventions that significantly reduce recidivism. As a psychologist, I was happy to see that cognitive behavioral therapy tops the list, followed by intensive drug treatment. Strong marriages and ties to work also help parolees reintegrate into society.

The entire book is available for free online from the National Academies Press.

August 4, 2007

Beware the bite-mark expert

Is forensic odontologist putting innocent people on death row?

With our increasingly crime-centered culture comes the "CSI Syndrome" of glorification of all things forensic. Unfortunately, it is sometimes hard for laypeople to distinguish valid science from the junk, and good experts from charlatans.

This is especially true in newly emerging fields such as "forensic odontology," in which dentists testify as expert witnesses about bite-mark patterns.

The spotlight on wrongful convictions is shining its beam on forensic odontology as – in the words of one legal scholar – "the poster child for bad forensic science."

In an expose in the Chicago Tribune a few years ago, journalists Flynn McRoberts and Steve Mills called the field "a case study" of the ease with which "forensic science's false aura of infallibility can distort the adversarial system of American justice."

Ask 10 dentists to identify a suspect from bite marks, and six of them will point to an innocent person, according to one informal study conducted at a convention workshop back in 1999. Indeed, odontologists often don’t agree on the most basic issue of all – whether a mark on a victim’s body is even a bite mark.

Ask who is the worst culprit of all, and you’re likely to hear the name of Michael West of Mississippi. He's testified in dozens of cases and helped to send many people to prison, including at least five to death row. He’s been the subject of exposes on 60 Minutes and in Newsweek and the National Law Journal.

Later this month, his testimony will be at the center of a hearing regarding a new trial for Kennedy Brewer, convicted of the 1991 murder of his then-girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter.

At Brewer's original trial, Dr. West testified that he found 19 bite marks on the girl's body that matched Brewer’s teeth. A defense expert countered that the marks were actually insect bites, but the jury believed the charismatic Dr. West.

The new hearing is a result of new DNA technology that didn’t exist at that time. Analysis of semen found in the girl's body revealed that it came from two separate men - neither of them Brewer.

Dr. West has taken the field of forensic odontology to "bizarre, megalomaniacal depths," according to an expose yesterday on Fox News. He has "invented a system he modestly calls 'The West Phenomenon.' In it, he dons a pair of yellow goggles and with the aid of a blue laser, he says he can identify bite marks, scratches, and other marks on a corpse that no one else can see - not even other forensics experts. Conveniently, he claims his unique method can't be photographed or reproduced, which he says makes his opinions unimpeachable by other experts."

The case points to the need for both courts and professional organizations to more vigilantly police expert witnesses.

The stakes are enormously high - both for potentially innocent suspects and for the credibility of the forensic sciences. As Fox reporter Radley Balko argues:

"The Kennedy Brewer case highlights a serious flaw in our adversarial criminal justice system — the use of expert testimony in complicated, advanced scientific fields. A charlatan like Dr. West, who has little respect from his peers, can with charisma and personality convince a jury to take his word over that of an expert far more careful and deliberate in his analysis. In some cases, indigent defendants can't afford to hire their own experts at all, leaving a state's expert like West as the only testimony on the available forensic evidence."

photo credit: "selfCTRL" (Creative Commons license)