September 28, 2007

Woman in ravine: A victim of police assumptions?

Who is victimized when police prematurely close in on the wrong suspect?

The suspect, of course.

I am writing from the Confessions and Interrogations conference in El Paso, where we heard yesterday from one such man. I've previously posted about Jeffrey Deskovic. Amazingly, he was convicted of a schoolmate's murder at age 16 despite DNA evidence of his innocence. He spent 16 years behind bars. He exhausted all of his appeals, and was freed last year only thanks to the random intervention of the Innocence Project and a new district attorney in his home county who was willing to re-test the DNA. He still looks a little dazed to be out. (As an aside, he is finishing up his bachelor's degree so that he can go on to law school, and his sole source of income comes from speaking engagements. He's an excellent speaker, so think about inviting him to your venue to discuss his case.)

But there are other types of victims who may not immediately come to mind.

How about all the women who are raped and murdered by the bad guys who remain on the loose? The serial rapist-killer in Deskovic's case went on to commit more violent crimes against women, as do many of the others, including the real perpetrators in the Central Park Jogger and the Norfolk Four cases.

There is another type of victim who is even less likely to come to mind.

Tanya Rider is an example of this type of victim. She went off the road while driving home from work one night, and spent the next eight days trapped in her car in a steep ravine near Renton, Washington.

What does she have to do with wrongful conviction?

Her husband learned about her rescue while sitting at the sheriff's station, waiting to take a polygraph examination. When he reported her missing, police turned the case into a criminal investigation with him as the prime suspect, he said today on national TV. This delayed and weakened the efforts to search for Tanya by several days, almost costing the young woman her life, he claims. And, if Tanya had not been found, he might well have become yet another in the growing list of wrongfully convicted.

She, meanwhile, remains hospitalized in critical condition. And, in another sign of the times, the couple has no medical insurance.

September 25, 2007

Nations competing to incarcerate more citizens

New Zealand's expensive new prison will teach history to indigenous people

As you, dear reader, already know, the prison population in the United States is enormous. The United States incarcerates more people both in raw numbers and in the proportion of its population than any other country.

But, like McDonalds and Starbucks, the prison nation concept is increasingly international. Around the world, prison populations are mushrooming. More than 9 million planetary residents are behind bars, with the proportion dramatically rising over the past 15 years.

This trend is not explained by rising crime rates or population growth. Rather, it is primarily due to a combination of public anxiety and fear, moral panics, harsh crime and drug policies, increasing use of incarceration to solve endemic social problems, and longer prison sentences for a larger variety of offenses.

New Zealand, a typical example, saw a 38% rise in its prison population during the 1990s, and anticipates another big jump over the next few years, largely due to longer prison sentences and imprisonment for more offenses.

Just this week, New Zealand opened a costly new prison near Auckland. With the prison business booming, it is expected to quickly fill.

The Spring Hill Corrections Facility is supposedly focused on rehabilitation and reintegration. It features a large rugby field and a wharenui (meeting house) where Māori people will be taught about their history. (Not unlike the disproportionate representation of minorities in U.S. prisons, Māoris are imprisoned at a rate of 568 per 100,000, as compared with a rate of 98 per 100,000 for non-Māoris.)

How's that for irony: Go to prison to learn about your history of oppression.

The International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College, London, has a remarkable interactive chart of worldwide incarceration rates. Go to New Zealand's TV3 for a news video about the new Spring Hill prison.

Hat tip to the Correctional Forum blog of Pennsylvania for alerting me to the New Zealand prison's opening.

September 24, 2007

Another fascinating disputed confession case

DNA catches real killer, but convicted men remain behind bars

Why read fiction, when real life is so much more compelling? Just in time for this week's University of Texas conference on confessions, I just read an expose on another fascinating case of multiple disputed confessions.

The Norfolk Four are Navy enlistees convicted and imprisoned in the 1997 death of a fellow enlisted man’s wife. The case could prove just as important as the Central Park jogger case in altering public perceptions about the reliability of confessions.

Indeed, the cases have major similarities. In both cases, multiple individuals confessed to a rape-murder after lengthy interrogations. And in each case, DNA evidence later tied the crime to a known sex offender who admitted acting alone. (Astonishingly, in the Norfolk Four case, police ignored the real killer despite the fact that he raped another young woman just 10 days later and a few hundred yards away.)

If the sailors' convictions are ultimately overturned or they succeed in their bid for gubernatorial clemency, this case may shine a welcome spotlight on the vulnerabilities of individuals with diminished mental capacities to coercive police interrogation. The enlisted man who was the focus of police suspicion, Joseph Jesse Dick Jr., is mentally slow, a factor that researchers have found to correlate with heightened susceptibility to falsely confess.

Prosecutors are fighting to uphold the convictions, and three of the men are still incarcerated.

A half-hour video on the case is available online, as is an excellent New York Times Magazine expose.

Hat tip to Jane for alerting me to this case.

The War on Drugs: "A 25-year quagmire"

Half a million Americans behind bars for drugs

The Sentencing Project has just released a scathing critique documenting the failures and unintended social consequences of the so-called War on Drugs. "A 25-Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on American Society" assesses the strategy of combating drug abuse primarily with enhanced punishments at the expense of investments in treatment and prevention.

Among the findings:
  • Drug arrests have more than tripled since 1980 to a record 1.8 million by 2005
  • Four of five drug arrests are for possession offenses, more than a quarter involving marijuana
  • Nearly 6 in 10 people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or high-level drug selling
  • A shortage of treatment options in many low-income neighborhoods contributes to the handling of drug abuse as a criminal justice problem instead of a social problem.

September 21, 2007

Ambiguous laws increase likelihood of racial profiling

The data are in, and – no surprise:
  • People in general do sometimes engage in racist behaviors under ambiguous situations in which they can rationalize their decisions in some other way.
With those data in mind, here’s a great idea: Let's pass ambiguous new laws and see how they are enforced.

That's just what municipalities around the country are doing, in a recipe for increasing racially discriminatory arrest patterns.

Take "sagging."

Atlanta, the hip hop capital of the South and perhaps the world, is currently debating whether to follow other cities around the country that have enacted laws against wearing baggy pants that show one's undergarments. The ordinance would impose fines and even jail time for violators.

The ACLU of Georgia says that is unconstitutional. The issue is not just about baggy pants, but about the criminalization of young black men, says ACLU executive director Debbie Seagraves: "We are talking about creating one more ordinance, one more law that can be used to put more and more young black people into a system that is already eating them up."

Not so, says C.T. Martin, the 70-year-old city councilman who proposed the law.

"My legislation is designed to help young people, to enlighten them and help them understand," said Martin. "When the police pull you over, you can't say they are profiling you. You've already profiled yourself."

Would it surprise you to learn that Martin is a longtime African-American activist?

Not if you are familiar with the research on unconscious racism, which shows that African American police and probation officers, for example, are just as likely as anyone else to make racist judgments about black criminal suspects. What's ominous is that the underlying racist stereotypes are not conscious, so people don't even know they're relying on them.

Or, as another example of ambiguous laws, take anti-gang injunctions.

On the opposite side of the country from Atlanta, progressive San Francisco is enacting anti-gang injunctions that bar people named on a gang list from congregating, wearing gang symbols or clothing, or flashing gang signs in certain geographic areas. The injunctions, already in place but currently being expanded, also impose a 10 p.m. to sunrise curfew on these individuals, under penalty of jail.

Remember the research about racist behavior being most likely to occur under ambiguous circumstances in which it can be rationalized away?

Well, with gang signs and symbols constantly changing, police will be given the leeway to interpret which hand signals, clothing, or other symbols constitute evidence of membership in the Norteños and other gangs.

Criminal defense attorneys opposing the injunction argued in court that some of the people named on the list are not in gangs and are being targeted because they live in public housing or have rapped about gangster life.

Robert Amparán, who is representing four men on the list, went so far as to call the injunction "government-sponsored racial profiling" that gives police sweeping power to harass and arrest Latino men.

While that may be true, the social science data on modern racism predict that those involved will rationalize any racist conduct on other grounds. After all, no one in these modern times wants to be seen – or even to see themselves – as a racist.

Photo credit: "CR Artist" (Creative Commons license)

Attorney Neil Richards comments on the constitutionality of baggy-pants laws at the Concurring Opinions blog. The Chicago Tribune has a news analysis of those ordinances.

The San Francisco Chronicle provides coverage of the debacle over San Francisco's anti-gang injunctions.

Research data on unconscious racial stereotyping among police and probation officers includes: Graham, S., & Lowery, B.S. (2004). Priming Unconscious Racial Stereotypes About Adolescent Offenders.
Law and Human Behavior, 28, 483-504.

Study: When criminal label closes doors, felons more likely to reoffend

I recently posted about a new book, Marked, that describes the employment consequences of a criminal conviction.

Now comes a large-scale study out of the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University with similar findings:
A convicted felon sentenced to probation for a violent, property or drug felony is more likely to re-offend within two years if he or she leaves court with an official "convicted felon" label and its barriers to employment and civil rights, according to a landmark study of nearly 96,000 probationers.
More information on the study, including a link to the article in the August issue of Criminology, is online.

September 20, 2007

Federal judges question novel diagnoses used to civilly commit sex offenders

Federal judges in Wisconsin are raising their eyebrows over psychiatric diagnoses that some contend were invented or are being overused for the sole purpose of civilly incarcerating sex offenders after their criminal sentences have expired.

The diagnoses at issue are "Paraphilia Not Otherwise Specified-Nonconsent" and "Personality Disorder Not Otherwise Specified with Antisocial Features." Neither diagnosis is included in the psychiatric bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), nor are they typically invoked in mainstream psychology or psychiatry.

In the more alarming of the two court cases, the court in Brown v. Watters stated that the state's psychologist had invented the diagnosis he was using in the case, "Paraphilia Not Otherwise Specified-Nonconsent." Dennis Doren, who is well known in the sex offender industry, "acknowledged that the psychiatric community did not recognize the former disorder and that he had created it himself because he perceived a gap in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual," according to the court's ruling.

A paraphilia is defined in the DSM as a chronic pattern of intense, sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors generally involving nonhuman objects, suffering or humiliation, or children or other nonconsenting persons. Doren has expanded that definition to include habitual rapists.

The other case ruled on by the federal appellate court was McGee v. Bartow, involving a diagnosis of "Personality Disorder Not Otherwise Specified with Antisocial Features." Michael McGee claims that this is a "bogus disorder" invented by state psychologists to justify his continued confinement after he completed his sentence.

Neither ruling decided the merits of these challenges to the state’s Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) laws. They decided only that the issues raised enough concern that the appellants were entitled to another day in court.

The two cases, both in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, are Bruce Brown v. Steve Watters, Case No. 06C0753, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53344, and Michael McGee v. Byran Bartow, Case No. 06-C-1151, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24700.

POSTSCRIPT: For subsequent rulings in these cases, see my blog post of May 2, 2008.

Thanks to Tom Zander, JD., Psy.D., of Wisconsin for alerting me to these cases.

Also see Dr. Zander’s article, Civil Commitment Without Psychosis: The Law's Reliance on the Weakest Links in Psychodiagnosis, available online at the Journal of Sexual Offender Civil Commitment: Science and the Law.

Report blames sick culture for preventable deaths in CA prisons

One in six deaths in California prisons last year may have been preventable, according to a report released yesterday, and much of the systemic failures stem from a sick attitude toward prisoners.

"Across the board we see delays in diagnosis and access to care and needed tests; misfiled, incomplete or illegible medical records; lack of space, sanitation and staffing; … failures by clinicians to recognize and evaluate 'red flag' symptoms, follow published guidelines, perform basic physical examinations, or respond to patient complaints," wrote the federal receiver who conducted the investigation.

"You can't expect clinicians to practice good medicine if they don't have good medical records, if they don't have lab results to help diagnosis, if they don't have a pharmacy system to support the right order of medications, if you don't have a culture within [the state prisons] that says, 'My goodness, these are human beings and they ought to be treated as human beings,' " the receiver told the Sacramento Bee.

Topping the list was deaths from asthma, which the receiver called "unconscionable" in 21st century California.

Other causes of preventable death included:
  • Acute pancreatitis - medical staff disregarded a man's nine complaints over three days of severe abdominal pain, because they thought he was lying
  • Heart ailment - a man reported chest pains in the middle of the night but didn't see the doctor for eight hours
  • A hernia condition – a man with recurring stomach pain, vomiting and a history of hernias had a five-week delay in a referral to a specialist (a consistent pattern found in the investigation)
For more information, visit the federal receiver's website. More online coverage is also available at the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee, and the blog Witness L.A.

Also check out the receiver’s interesting slide show on medical care at San Quentin.

September 19, 2007

What's it take to become a forensic psychologist?

Profilers. Silence of the Lambs. The criminal mind. So eerie, so glamorous.


I get many emails and phone calls from students interested in pursuing forensic psychology as a career. So, by popular demand, here is a brief overview.

First, what is a forensic psychologist?

Forensic psychologists are licensed clinical psychologists who specialize in applying psychological knowledge to legal matters, both in the criminal and civil arenas. Forensic psychology is a subdiscipline of psychology, with its own professional organizations, training programs, and research journals. Forensic psychologists are found in academia, public service, and the private sector.

Forensic psychologists are called upon to assist in a wide variety of legal matters, including the mental state of criminal defendants (insanity, competency, etc.), jury selection, child custody/family law, violence risk prediction, mediation/dispute resolution, discrimination, civil damages, social science research (e.g., recovered memory), and civil commitment.

What is the state of the field?

Forensic psychology is a rapidly growing discipline. Currently, the American Psychology-Law Society has about 3,000 members, and the number continues to grow. Many experienced psychologists are seeking to respecialize into this field in order to escape the confines of managed care. Students are attracted to the field by our culture's growing absorption with all matters criminal, as well as fictional depictions such as TV's The Profiler and Criminal Minds.

The growth of forensic psychology is not without controversy. Some have accused forensic psychologists of being hired guns or even - less politely - "whores." Recent federal court decisions are causing increasing scientific scrutiny of psychological evidence. This in turn is leading to the development of increasingly rigorous training programs, instruments, and procedures that will allow us to withstand such adversarial scrutiny.

In the long run, well-trained forensic psychologists will likely fare well in the increasingly skeptical marketplace of the future.

What skills must a forensic psychologist have?

Forensic psychologists are psychological scientists. The investigatory component requires strong detective skills. We must compare data from multiple sources in order to test alternative hypotheses. The emphasis is on written reports and court testimony that are scientifically valid and can withstand scrutiny in the adversarial environment of the courtroom.

Becoming a successful forensic psychologist requires, at minimum, the following:
  • solid clinical psychology training and experience
  • firm grounding in scientific theory and empirical research (understanding of scientific validity, research design, statistics, and testing)
  • critical thinking
  • thorough knowledge of social and cultural issues
  • legal knowledge (including mental health law, case law, and courtroom procedures)
  • excellent writing skills
  • strong oral presentation skills (and ability to maintain composure in stressful circumstances)
So, how can I sign on?

At the present time, there is no single acceptable training model for forensic psychologists.

The dominant model continues to be one in which a student obtains a doctoral degree in clinical psychology, and subsequently pursues a postdoctoral specialization in forensics. However, more and more graduate schools are beginning to adopt forensic tracks. An online list of institutions offering various types of Ph.D./Psy.D. programs in forensic psychology is available here.

Some newer programs also offer terminal master's degrees in forensic psychology, although it is unclear how master's level clinicians will fare in a field dominated by professionals with more advanced degrees.

Only a handful of formal postdoctoral specialization programs exist nationwide, and these programs are quite small and selective, typically accepting only one to two candidates per year. These rigorous programs are aimed at training future leaders in the field.

Some people also pursue dual degrees in psychology and law. There are a few such joint degree programs, and some law schools offer a scaled-down, one-year Master of Legal Studies degree. Having a dual degree may make one more competitive, but for most practitioners it is not realistic or cost-effective.

A more thorough discussion of the pros and cons of different types of educational programs is available in the brand-new edition of Psychological Evaluations for the Courts.

The Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice has just (Vol. 7 #2, 2007) published a point-counterpoint pair of articles on whether forensic psychology should necessarily require a doctoral degree:
"Raising the bar: The case for doctoral training in forensic psychology," by Carl B. Clements, Ph.D., ABPP, and Emily E. Wakeman, MA

"The time is now: The emerging need for master's-level training in forensic psychology," by Matt Zaitchik, Ph.D., Garrett Berman, Ph.D., Don Whitworth, Ph.D., & Judith Platania, Ph.D.
What tips do you have for trainees?
  • Apply for forensic-related internships, such as at forensic hospitals, correctional facilities, and community mental health settings.
  • Tailor your doctoral dissertation to a psychology-law topic in your area of professional interests.
  • Become a student member of the American Psychology-Law Society, an interdisciplinary organization devoted to scholarship, practice, and public service in psychology and law.
  • Stay current by regularly reading the leading journals in the field, among them Law and Human Behavior, Behavioral Sciences and the Law, and Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.
Becoming successful in this field is an arduous endeavor. However, for those with the energy, stamina and critical thinking skills, it can be a rewarding occupation.

But what about criminal profiling?
Oh, yes. That question.

Unfortunately, one of students’ biggest misconceptions about forensic psychology is that we do criminal profiling. This mythology comes directly from movies and TV shows such as Silence of the Lambs, Criminal Minds, and The Profiler.

In reality, most law enforcement agencies do not regularly use criminal profiling methods. When they do, they typically employ profilers with extensive backgrounds in law enforcement rather than in psychology. Perhaps more importantly, many scholars dispute that profiling even qualifies as a scientific method meriting inclusion in the behavioral sciences.

So, if your primary interest is in criminal profiling, the field of forensic psychology may not be for you.


CA could lead in criminal justice reform

Three bills on Governor's desk

Three of the most common causes of wrongful conviction are mistaken eyewitness identification, false confessions, and fabricated statements of informants.

California is poised to address all three of those problems, through major criminal justice reform bills now sitting on the Governor's desk. The bills would:
  • require electronic recording of police interrogations in serious felony cases (Senate Bill 511)
  • appoint a task force to draft guidelines for police line-up procedures to increase the accuracy of eyewitness identifications (Senate Bill 756)
  • require the corroboration of testimony from jailhouse informants (Senate Bill 609)
The ACLU of Northern California has a quick and easy online form that allows people to send a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, urging him to make California a leader in criminal justice reform by signing these bills into law.

September 17, 2007

Congressional journal highlights APA torture debate

The struggle over the role of psychologists in military interrogations is reaching the halls of Congress. Today's issue of Congressional Quarterly features an article by Shawn Zeller, entitled "Torture Issue Ties Up Psychologists Association":

You'd think that psychologists, of all people, would know torture when they see it. But the leaders of the American Psychological Association, the profession's governing body, have been trying for more than two years to quell a faction of vocal dissidents who say the group tacitly condones U.S. military and intelligence use of coercive tactics.

The latest blow-up came last month at the association's annual meeting in San Francisco. The dissidents, calling themselves Psychologists for an Ethical APA, pushed for a moratorium on psychologist participation in military interrogations. The association's governing council eventually rebuffed that crusade, winning adoption instead of a new policy barring psychologists from participating in more than 20 kinds of torture techniques - including "mock executions, water-boarding or any other form of simulated drowning or suffocation, sexual humiliation, rape," or "cultural or religious humiliation."

But the dissident psychologists aren't satisfied, by a long shot. They're angry that the association "avoided saying outright that all aversive interrogation techniques are prohibited," says Steven Reisner, a leader of the disaffected group who's a New York University psychoanalyst. What's more, he says, the APA's vote means psychologists may still participate in aversive methods as long as they aren't employed in a formal interrogation - effectively condoning controlled use of methods such as sleep deprivation, which other groups have condemned as torture. It's the dissidents' belief that the APA is striving to protect the professional standing of members who work for the Pentagon or CIA - and to keep the association's own relationship with those agencies in good repair.

Reisner's group is fighting on two fronts. It's asking APA members to withhold their dues until the association produces a more forceful denunciation of torture and aversive interrogation techniques. And Reisner says he and his colleagues also plan to lobby state psychological associations to adopt stricter rules. They have also provided information about the APA’s internal debate on the issue to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The article continues at Congressional Quarterly's web site.

September 14, 2007

Exiles in their own land: Sex offenders and the history of banishment in Western culture

Adam and Eve were banished from Eden. Much later, in 12th-century England, criminals could use banishment to escape death providing they had fled to a sacred place for sanctuary. Still later, convicts were banished to far-away prison colonies, among them the United States and, later, Australia. Banishment served the same function as execution, but “without the blood.” This form of banishment ended with the ebbing of new frontiers.

Now, in sex offender residency laws, we are seeing a new form of banishment – internal exile – that may fundamentally change the U.S. criminal justice system and the broader culture.

So argues Corey Rayburn Yung, a law professor at the John Marshall Law School, in a cogent analysis of the history and legal status of banishment.

At this point, residency restrictions have not seen their full effects. As I write, parole agents armed with GPS devices are fanning the state of California, knocking on ex-offenders’ doors and telling them to move. (See today’s Contra Costa Times for the latest news coverage as well as an interesting map illustrating the scope of the banishment in the San Francisco Bay Area.)

As large, urbanized states begin to enforce the restrictions, exile communities will develop. It is frightening to think of the unintended consequences of creating communities made up almost entirely of male sex offenders, where sexual deviancy will become the norm. Or of forcing those who reject these offender ghettos to disappear underground, where they will go unmonitored and unemployed, creating another recipe for recidivism.

Yung’s article, from the current issue of the Washington University Law Review, is available online.

Masaccio's Die Vertreibung Adams und Evas aus dem Paradies, public domain at Wikimedia

September 13, 2007

Sex offender laws harmful, human rights group warns

In a landmark study released yesterday, the largest human rights organization in the United States is calling for a dramatic reversal of sex offender policies.

Cataloging the far-reaching damage being done under the guise of protecting children, the 146-page report by Human Rights Watch urges an end to residency restrictions, online registries, and the registration of juveniles. Registration in general should be limited to those convicted of serious offenses who represent a demonstrated danger.

"Politicians didn't do their homework before enacting these laws," said Sarah Tofte, one of the researchers involved in the large-scale investigation. "Instead they have perpetuated myths about sex offenders and failed to deal with the complex realities of sexual violence against children."

It takes courage to publicly stand up for the rights of society's most demonized members. Human Rights Watch should be applauded for stepping forward.

"No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the United States" is a well-researched and thoughtful analysis. So, put on your reading glasses and turn on your printer. Then pass it along to everyone you know who is concerned about human rights.

September 10, 2007

Federal court strikes down portion of Adam Walsh Act

In a potentially important legal challenge, a federal appellate court has struck down part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.

The Act, hailed by Sen. Orrin Hatch as "the most comprehensive child crimes and protection bill in our Nation's history," created a National Sex Offender Registry to identify, track, and confine sex offenders.

Friday's ruling, by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, strikes down the civil commitment portion of the law.

The law's "failure to require a court to find beyond a reasonable doubt that a person has engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation prior to permitting the individual's indefinite involuntary civil commitment as a sexually dangerous person constitutes a violation of due process," states the ruling in U.S. v. Comstock.

The Act allows for civil commitment based on the lower legal standard of "clear and convincing evidence."

The challenge was brought by the North Carolina Federal Public Defenders on behalf of Graydon Comstock, who was sentenced to a 37-month prison term for receiving computer pornography via computer. After his prison term ended on Nov. 8, 2006, the government certified him as a "sexually dangerous person" under the civil commitment provision of the Walsh Act and kept him in confinement.

Grayson will not automatically go free as a result of Friday's ruling, as the court stayed imposition to give the government a chance to appeal.

The legal decision may portend a split among appellate courts on the constitutionality of the new law, according to law professor Corey Rayburn Yung, who posted about the decision on his "Sex Crimes" blog. See his blog for legal analysis and additional links.

New book highlights prisoner reentry obstacles

Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration
by Devah Pager, Princeton University sociologist

From my Amazon review:

If this depressing book cannot convince people that racism is alive and well in America today, I don't know what could. Dr. Pager reports on an empirical research project in which teams of well-put-together white and black college students went job-hunting in and around Milwaukee, with one member of each team "marked" as an ex-convict. What she found is astonishing. Black job applicants WITHOUT drug convictions fared no better than white ex-cons WITH convictions; with "two strikes" against them, black men with a (bogus) drug conviction had slim odds of getting a call-back from a prospective employer. This problem was especially pronounced in the suburbs, which are gaining an increasing proportion of jobs despite the fact that many job-seekers remain in the cities. Dr. Pager includes informative and well-written chapters on the state of mass incarceration in the United States today, as well as the massive and growing problem of prisoner reentry. With more than 600,000 people pouring out of prisons each year, Dr. Pager's book is a must-read for anyone concerned with the public policy aspects of the reentry problem. This is yet another excellent entry into the recent crop of books cataloging the collateral consequences of mass imprisonment. (See my Amazon list "Prison World" for more.)

September 9, 2007

Appellate court: Parolee cannot be forced into 12-Step treatment

In what could be a blow to the 12-Step Movement's stranglehold over substance abuse treatment, an appellate court has ruled that a parolee cannot be ordered into a treatment program that uses the model.

At least eight other federal and state courts have issued similar opinions in the past, holding that coerced treatment in a religion-based program is unconstitutional. On Friday, the Ninth District Court of Appeals reiterated that precedent.

The case involved a Buddhist, Ricky Inouye of Hawaii, who had objected to religiously oriented drug treatment while in prison on a drug case. Over his objection, his parole agent ordered him to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings after a urinalysis tested positive for drugs. He has since died, but Friday's ruling allows his son to continue Inouye's civil lawsuit against his parole agent. The opinion held that Narcotics Anonymous has pronounced religious overtones, including references to God, a "higher power," and prayer.

For decades, most treatment programs have unquestioningly followed the Alcoholics Anonymous model. With more than half a million people pouring out of U.S. prisons each year, the bulk of them drug offenders, the treatment industry is an enormous cash cow.

From a social science perspective, the court's position is good news. The 12-Step philosophy flies in the face of much empirical data on substance abuse and recovery patterns, yet its dominance makes it hard for more scientifically based, cognitive-behavioral treatments to gain a foothold in the marketplace.

The 12-Step model fits with the medical model dominant in modern culture. It describes certain people as "alcoholics" suffering from an incurable, progressive "disease." Its treatment approach, therefore, proscribes lifelong abstinence.

"The essence of the AA approach resembles revivalistic Protestantism, with elements of ritual prayer, public confession and surrender of will to a 'higher power,' and dogmatic religiosity reinforces the defensive barrier against innovation," says critic C. Gary Pettigrew, Ph.D., also a forensic psychologist.

In the past half century, since the American Medical Association endorsed the AA model, much scientific work has debunked both the disease theory and the superior efficacy of 12-step treatment. However, this knowledge has been largely suppressed by religious, political, and industry forces. Many "therapists" and "counselors" in 12-Step programs are "recovering" alcohol and drug abusers, and many clinicians are not aware of the critical research base in this area.

Not all of the resistance to more secular, empirically based treatment is innocent in motive. Herbert Fingarette, a critic of the industry, points out that the concept of certain defective people as innately prone toward "alcoholism" benefits the alcohol industry by blaming individuals for the collateral damage of its products. In addition, the treatment industry benefits financially by hiring less educated, non-professional "therapists" at low salaries and by receiving third-party insurance payments for treating a "disease."

Friday's court ruling in Inouye v. Kemna echoes earlier rulings out of the Seventh and Second U.S. Courts of Appeal, which probation and parole officers have ignored in continuing to force parolees and probationers to attend AA/NA meetings as conditions of their release. Indeed, the Ninth Circuit commented that this area of case law is "uncommonly well-settled." (Previous cases include Kerr v. Farrey, 95 F.3d 472, 7th Circuit, 1996, and Warner v. Orange County Dept. of Probation, 115 F.3d 1068, 2nd Circuit, 1997, respectively; see Inouye v. Kemna for a listing of related court decisions.)

Harm Reduction Therapy is one of the promising alternative approaches that these court decisions - if anyone ever heeds them - could assist. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, this treatment method addresses the complex social, occupational, psychological, and emotional factors that may contribute to an individual's drug and alcohol problems.

And, by the way, the second national Harm Reduction Therapy Conference will be November 2-4 in Philadelphia.

Photo credit: Johnny Wood (Creative Commons license); vodka ad at trendy Union Square in San Francisco. Alcohol manufacturers spend more than $1 billion each year advertising their products and hide behind the "disease" concept of alcoholism to deny responsibility for the carnage their products produce.

September 7, 2007

Craig exonerated; new Apple technology to revolutionize senatorial trysts

Posted with the permission of cartoonist Don Asmussen, San Francisco Chronicle.

Special issue on racial profiling and the law

The August 2007 issue of the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice focuses on racial profiling in the criminal justice system. The abstracts are free; you must either pay or have a subscription to read the articles in their entirety.

The contents include:

  • Profiles of Injustice: The Theory and Practice of Racial Profiling - Zina T. McGee
  • Racial Profiling and the Courts: An Empirical Analysis of Federal Litigation, 1991 to 2006 - Shaun L. Gabbidon, Lakiesha N. Marzette, and Steven A. Peterson
  • Police Discourse on Racial Profiling - Karen S. Glover
  • Racial Profiling and Postmodern Society: Police Responsiveness, Image Maintenance, and the Left Flank of Police Legitimacy - Kirk Miller
  • Legislative and Court Decisions That Promulgated Racial Profiling: A Sociohistorical Perspective - Larry D. Stokes
  • Black Criminal Stereotypes and Racial Profiling - Kelly Welch
Thanks to the always informative Psychology and Crime News blog for alerting me to this important volume.

September 6, 2007

Universal DNA databases looming

Racial and ethical implications debated

DNA databases are great, aren't they? In the last few years, we've heard many a case of an innocent person, languishing in prison, being exonerated by newly discovered DNA evidence. Or, we hear of DNA solving a heinous crime, perhaps even a serial murder. (We see it even more often on TV crime dramas like CSI, but that’s a story for another day.)

DNA databases work best when they contain a lot of genetic data. So, why wait until people are arrested, or even convicted of a crime? Why not swab every single person at birth, before they grow up to commit a crime?

This is not far-fetched. Such a universal database is already underway in Portugal. And now, it's being debated in England, the country that started national DNA databanking a dozen years ago. British officials already have more than 4 million samples (7% of the population, the largest proportion of any nation), and a prominent judge this week proposed cataloging everyone, even visitors to the country.

Paradoxically, proponents of universal DNA banking cite concerns of justice and fairness. The current system amounts to racial and ethnic profiling, they say. Minorities make up far more than their share of those arrested. And even when they are subsequently proven innocent or released without charges, their genetic profiles remain. In England, more than three-fourths of young black men are in the database, compared with only about one in five young white men.

When the databases first caught on in the United States, the laws contained safeguards intended to prevent this. In many states, DNA was only collected upon conviction, and only for very limited types of crimes, typically murder and rape.

But politicians, always looking to boost their tough-on-crime credentials, have expanded DNA banking to an ever-increasing array of offenses. Most recently, laws are following the British trend of collecting DNA from people who are arrested but not convicted. The U.S. Justice Department may now collect DNA from everyone they detain, a policy that will hit immigration violators hardest.

Civil libertarians are up in arms. The expanded laws are creating near-universal DNA databases for black men, they say. As criminologist Simon Cole points out, "Some demographic sectors of American society, such as poor, black, inner-city males, have shockingly low probabilities of getting through adolescence without having at least one run-in with the police. If such encounters trigger inclusion in a DNA database, the database becomes discriminatory."

Opponents also point to the possibility of wrongful incrimination. Reports of errors at DNA laboratories are becoming more common. And the possibility that DNA evidence could be planted is ever more likely. In addition, DNA contains sensitive personal information that could be exploited.

In come cases, law enforcement agencies are utilizing DNA technology in ways that are outside of public awareness or judicial oversight. For example, in an ominous new trend, when investigators cannot match a DNA profile to a crime scene, they may look for close matches and investigate those individuals' family members. Thus, a minor brush with the law can ripple through an entire family.

"In a society in which young black males in some neighborhoods have a one-in-three probability of ending up in state custody at some time in their lives (and an even higher chance of getting an arrest record), the racial overtones of such a practice are dramatic," criminologist Cole notes.

Would a universal database solve discriminatory practices, as proponents claim?

That is unlikely, so long as our criminal justice system continues to disproportionately target certain sectors of the population. In the end, DNA technology could just provide one more powerful tool for discriminatory enforcement.

Thanks to Simon Cole, associate professor of criminology, law, and society at the University of California, Irvine, for his excellent overview of this topic.

See also the American Society of Law, Medicine, and Ethics' web site, "DNA Fingerprinting and Civil Liberties."

Photo credit: Jovika (Creative Commons license)

Additional resources:

DNA and the Criminal Justice System: The Technology of Justice, David Lazer (MIT Press, 2004)

Rights and Liberties in the Biotech Age: Why We Need a Genetic Bill of
Rights, Sheldon Krimsky and Peter Shorrett(Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005).

September 4, 2007

Senator Craig: "The breastplate of righteousness"

Much of the public debate surrounding Larry Craig's arrest centers on whether the senator is "gay." This completely misses the boat.

Back in the 1960s, a sociologist named Laud Humphreys conducted groundbreaking research into bathroom sex, or so-called "tearoom trade." He watched men engaging in sex in 19 public restrooms around St. Louis, Missouri. He surreptitiously noted their license plate numbers and later knocked on their doors in the guise of conducting an innocuous social sciences survey.

His findings, confirmed in more recent research, are that most of the men were married, religious, socially conservative, and heterosexually identified.

In other words, they were just like Senator Craig.

In fact, married men who engage in public sex are not only conservative; they often exhibit an exaggerated form of propriety. They drive late-model cars that are clean and polished, they maintain well-manicured lawns, they are impeccably groomed and dressed, and they attend church regularly. In short, they present themselves as proper, moral, and pious.

Although public sex is risky for these men, it allows them to maintain this veneer, which Humphreys labeled the "breastplate of righteousness."

As Humphreys' research demonstrated, public sex has been around a long time, and it is pervasive. Police have been stymied in their efforts to eradicate or even reduce it. In response to this longstanding dilemma, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) has published an interesting manual on how to control such "illicit sexual activity in public places."

An innovative solution proposed in the manual, which only works if a community is amenable, is to tolerate some amount of public sexual behavior in clearly delineated areas, as is the practice in certain European communities.

Less effective, the manual cautions, is the decoy approach used on Craig:

"While using undercover officers to pose as interested parties in illicit same-sex public activity can lead to many arrests, such operations have not had long-term effectiveness in reducing overall activity levels. At best, they temporarily displace the activity to other locations, and the activity usually returns to prior levels once the operations have ceased. Further, given the active role that undercover officers must take to confirm suspects' intentions, the police may be vulnerable to entrapment claims. In addition, many officers are reluctant to serve as decoys because of the customary behavioral scripts they must follow. Finally, some may see the serious social consequences of the publicity following an arrest as disproportionate to the severity of the offense."
For a social science perspective on the Craig scandal and its relevance to issues of sexual identity, denial, and prejudice, see Gregory Herek's insightful blog post, "Tearooms, Labels, and Double Standards."

Photo credit: cybertoad (Creative Commons license)

Additional resources:

Humphreys, L. (1970). Tearoom trade: Impersonal sex in public places. New York: Aldine Publishing Co.

Johnson, Kelly Dedel. Illicit Sexual Activity in Public Places. 2005. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Nardi, P.M. (1995). "The Breastplate of Righteousness": Twenty-Five Years After Laud Humphreys' Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places. Journal of Homosexuality, 30, 1-10.

Desroches, F.J. (1990). Tearoom Trade: A Research Update. Qualitative Sociology, 13, 39-61.

Dignan, J. 2004. Manhunt. Sacramento News & Review, (2004).

Frankis, J., & Flowers, P. (2005). Men who have sex with men in public sex environments: A systematic review of quantitative literature. AIDS Care, 17, 273-288.

The Wall Street Journal's online edition links to the above post.