December 30, 2008

Will “revolutionary” Diana Screen end pedophile menace?

Vatican enlisting psychologists to perform miracles

The new movie Doubt paints the issue of pedophilic priests in shades of gray. Is the priest (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) really a pedophile? Or is the head nun (Meryl Streep) just after him because, with his friendly manner and long fingernails, he fits her stereotype? Most provocative of all is the ostracized boy's mother (Viola Davis), who cares more about the priest's kindness to her son than about whether the relationship is sexual.

The movie is set in the 1960s, two decades before the pedophilia scandals sprang into the limelight to tarnish the reputation of the Catholic Church. Revelations of sexual misconduct by priests resulted in staggering financial losses - an estimated $2 billion in civil damages paid by the U.S. Catholic Church alone.

Anxious to mend its reputation and plug the money drain, the Vatican just announced a new fix: Candidates for the priesthood will undergo psychological screening to determine their suitability for the job.

What makes a candidate unsuitable, according to the Vatican? "Uncertain sexual identity," "deep-seated homosexual tendencies," and "grave immaturity" are among the factors. Painting a pseudoscientific veneer on the campaign, the Vatican said "expert" psychologists will screen select candidates on a case-by-case basis.

Mental health professionals, already flush with domain expansion into the emergent sex offender industry, are rushing into this new and potentially lucrative niche.

Leading the charge is Gene Abel, the psychiatrist who invented the controversial Abel Screen, which measures sexual proclivities based on how long men look at visual images of different types of models. Abel is promoting a new "pass/fail" test called the Diana Screen as a "breakthrough in technology" that can accurately identify men who have molested children.

"Who should use it?" asks the tool's website. "Any organization where there are professionals or volunteers who work with children," including churches, youth groups, schools, hospitals, foster care homes, and amusement parks.

In an appeal that combines sex panic emotionalism with a promise of revenue, Abel asks professionals to step forward and "make a difference" by becoming Diana Screen administrators: "You don't just add to your business opportunity, you take a stand against molestation and you help others to also take a stand."

Who can resist an appeal like that?

A quick web search found several psychologists already offering to do Diana Screens for employers. One bragged of having a "Certificate of Achievement" from Abel "in recognition of [his] knowledge about this important technology."

Child molesters are a heterogeneous bunch, with no unitary psychological "profile." So, before rushing to sign on, I decided to read the published literature on the Diana Screen to find out how it works, and whether it is reliable and valid.

Searching "Diana Screen" in an academic database, I did not get any hits. An Internet search was slightly more productive. I found several presentations by Abel. He presented the Diana Screen to the Society for Sex Therapy and Research; the Assessment, Treatment and Safe Management of Sexually Abusing Children, Adolescents, and Adults conference, and the California Coalition on Sexual Offending (CCOSO).

At these conferences, Abel reported on research he conducted with 100-plus applicants for priesthood training jobs. Unfortunately, the research does not appear to have been peer-reviewed or published, as required for admissibility in court under the Daubert standard.

Searching further, I found some strategically placed advertising; searches with the keywords "child molestation" cause Diana Screen ads to pop up on some news sites. The Screen was also a featured exhibitor at this year's conference of the Chartered Property Casualty Underwriters Society, which offers "cutting-edge tools" for "risk management professionals."

More humorously, in the blogosphere I bumped into a group of sex offenders discussing how easy it is to beat the test (and its precursor, the Abel). All you have to do, wrote one man, is ignore the instructions to rate your sexual arousal level to each slide, and instead respond at "a regular timing interval," which is what is really being measured.

"You'll laugh when you find out just how easily the test can be beaten! The entire thing rides on the theory that no one will know what it's really testing."

Another agreed: "It's so seriously EASY to play the test like a harp."

These sex offenders would likely quarrel with the Screen developers' claim that it can identify "over 50 percent of actual child sexual abusers."

But my own question about the 50 percent success rate was, How can they know they are identifying half of all pedophiles? And, perhaps more importantly from an ethical point of view, what is the rate of false positives, or people whom the test wrongly identify as child molesters?

Hoping to learn more, I contact the company directly and asked for any published research. In due time, I received a packet of materials - glossy brochures and fliers, a sample report, graphs, and more promises that the Screen will help "bring an end to child molestation." No references to published research, though.

The materials did include a handout on the aforementioned (unpublished?) study of candidates for religious ordination. Of the 135 applicants screened, 18 (or about 13 percent) failed the test. Of those, 7 "were found to be true sexual risks to children" (based on followup inquiry and polygraph testing), while 2 "were found to have mental health problems" and 9 "required a closer look, but were found to have little or no risk."

Stated another way, that's a false positive rate of at least 50 percent. Even if it is just a screening test, psychologists should be cautious in administering a test with such a high false-positive rate and no published, peer-reviewed data on its reliability or validity.

More fundamentally, this type of testing raises philosophical issues about how far society should go in the name of protecting children, especially when most victimization is done not by teachers or amusement park workers but by family members. Who, for example, should be screened? As a colleague commented, it is one thing to screen airline pilots for alcohol abuse, but if priests, teachers, hospital employees, and even carnival workers will be screened, where will we draw the line? How much personal information are employers entitled to know? And what recourse will there be for those who are denied employment or lose their jobs based on their innermost thoughts, their sexual identity, an incident in their distant pasts, or - worst of all - erroneous test results?

The most pernicious problem with false positives is, how can one really know? As the movie Doubt suggests, proving innocence is difficult, and those who claim to be protecting children may have more complicated motives.

* * * * *
JULY 2015 POSTSCRIPT: The Atlantic has just published an interesting article on the controversies swirling around Abel Assessment by Maurice Chammah, a staff writer at The Marshall Project.

December 24, 2008

Criminal profiling strikes out again

British case also features missteps by police, prosecutors, tabloid media

In death, Rachel Nickell became an icon of the sexual brutalization of women. The London model was just 23 in July of 1992, when she was strolling across Wimbledon Common with her 2-year-old son and was stabbed 49 times, sexually abused, and almost decapitated in a frenzied, daylight attack.

As pressured mounted to solve the horrific murder and several other similar crimes, detectives turned to Paul Britton, a forensic psychologist with near-mythic stature in the field of criminal profiling.

Britton was suspicious of Colin Stagg, a lonely dog lover who had popped up on police radar when he replied to an ad in a lonely hearts magazine. With Britton’s help, police set a trap. They had a policewoman, "Lizzie James," befriend Stagg. Lizzie tried but failed to get Stagg to admit to killing Nickell. A judge threw out the case based on the illegality of the sting operation, but Stagg became Britain’s premiere pariah, villainized by the tabloid press as a black magic practitioner who had "gotten away with murder."

Britton, meanwhile, used the case to bolster his professional reputation, and featured it in his boastful 1998 autobiography, "The Jigsaw Man."

But Britton had made a catastrophic blunder. In pursuing his pet theory, he failed to connect the killing of Nickells and another young woman either to each other or to the "Green Chain rapes," a series of similar, frenzied, random knife attacks on women in the time period leading up Nickell's murder.

As forensic psychology professor Laurence Alison pointed out, "Frenzied random motiveless knife attacks on women are rare. Even more unusual are frenzied, random knife attacks on women with their young children present. Here was Britton with two of them under his nose and no one noticed."

Years later, the high-profile case came to a close when a paranoid schizophrenic named Robert Napper was tied to the killing by DNA evidence. Last week, Napper pleaded diminished responsibility due to mental illness and was sentenced to an indefinite term in a high-security hospital. He is suspected in at least 106 crimes involving 86 women.

Critics say that Nickell and other women would have been saved if police and prosecutors had followed all leads rather than blindly pursuing an innocent man. Napper came onto police radar screens at least eight times dating back to 1989. Some tipsters specifically linked him to the sexual assaults; beat cops in one incident described him in their notes as "strange, abnormal, should be considered as a possible rapist," and his own mother turned him in for rape. Astonishingly, police still did not pursue him for Nickell's murder even after DNA tests in 1994 tied him to the Green Chain rapes in 1994.

The case features the same type of investigative tunnel vision and prosecutorial stubborness we saw in the Norfolk Four case (see my blog post here) as well as the dangers of reliance on alluring but pseudoscientific techniques such as criminal profiling.

As one commentator put it, "Britton would never have impressed detectives if he had said that Stagg was a bit of a weirdo. When he dressed up that same thought in psychological language and talked of 'deviant interests' and 'sexual dysfunctions,' he sounded fatally convincing."

After his acquittal, Stagg filed a misconduct complaint against Britton with the British Psychological Society, but the case was dismissed in 2002, two years before the DNA evidence conclusively proved Stagg's innocence.

Photos (from top): Rachel Nickell (murder victim), Paul Britton (profiler), Colin Stagg (innocent man), Robert Napper (serial killer).

Laurence Alison, chair of forensic psychology at Liverpool University, has a new book on the Napper case, Killer in the Shadows. Journalist Ted Hynds co-authored Stagg's account, Pariah. The Guardian of London has full coverage of the Nickells case. My previous articles on criminal profiling are here.

December 22, 2008

New journal issue loaded with hot topics

The current (December) issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law has a slew of interesting articles on sex offender civil commitment, forensic brain imaging, religion and the death penalty, forensic assessment of problematic Internet use, psychotherapy with prisoners, competency case law, school shooter motivations, and other timely topics. Highlights include:

Use of DSM Paraphilia Diagnoses in Sexually Violent Predator Commitment Cases
This is the long-awaited article by DSM-III editors Michael B. First and Robert L. Halon, addressing diagnostic controversies in SVP civil commitment cases.

It is accompanied by two commentaries:
  • In Muddy Diagnostic Waters in the SVP Courtroom, forensic psychologist Robert Prentky and colleagues essentially agree with First and Halon’s critique. They state that misuse of the DSM in SVP cases is a serious form of "pretextuality."
Next comes a similar point-counterpoint series of three articles on functional brain imaging in court:
The full Table of Contents, with links to full-text pdf files, is here.

December 21, 2008

Good building, bad building

Guest essay by Eric Lotke*

China has opened a new subway system every year for the past six years. The U.S. has opened 45 new prisons and jails. Who's setting up to lead in the 21st century?

"Expanding prisons mean more jobs," explained the Fayetteville Observer over the summer.

The rural North Carolina community was celebrating the $19 million expansion of a $90 million prison that opened in 2003 and immediately filled to capacity. Such growth is a boon for rural, economically distressed counties. "Prison jobs bring added payroll, boost housing markets and draw new retail customers to poor parts of the state," observed the Observer.

The good news is that public investment can work. The bad news is that better choices must be made. We need to distinguish between prisons for crime control and prisons as a jobs program, between building for the future and building for the past.
  • "This is the biggest thing to happen to Stewart County since I've been here," said the chair of the county board when the private, for-profit Corrections Corporation of America opened a new 1,524 person detention center. "Everything's been leaving rather than coming in the 10 years I've been here. The biggest thing this will do is provide jobs for the county and the area."
  • "Push state to build prison here," editorialized the Altoona Mirror in central Pennsylvania, three weeks before the election. "What would the area do to obtain 600 well-paying jobs in what could be termed a recession-proof industry? It's not a rhetorical question. Those jobs could happen. But it's important that our local and state leaders don't drop the ball."
President-elect Barack Obama is planning a massive new public works program. He wants to employ 2.5 million people rebuilding our roads and schools and bridges. That’s great. It's more than great. We need the projects, we need the jobs, and the proposal is on the order of magnitude of the problem.

Part of the program could be a reconsideration of the role prisons play in our rural economy. That role seems to have taken on a life of its own.

"When folks here heard the governor wanted to close the 137-year-old Pontiac Correctional Center, sucking hundreds of jobs from the area, they mobilized in a way that only small towns can. They held rallies and a parade. Streets were lined with blue-and-white 'Save Our Prison' signs and residents were outfitted in T-shirts to match." The local ABC news affiliate described it as "a struggle for their economic lives," as the state considered closing the town's second-largest employer to help fill a $700 million hole in the state budget.

States are truly struggling. Forty-one states have already reported budget problems for the current or upcoming fiscal year, and it's likely to get worse. States are starting to cut benefits and services ranging from health care to public schools and early childhood education.
But one budget item is never questioned: prisons.

Even as states spend nearly $50 billion on prisons every year and counties spend over $20 billion on jails, we build additional locked capacity. Even with U.S. incarceration rates at seven times historical and international norms, we build. Even as crime continues on its 15-year descent to levels not seen in 40 years, we find money to build even more.

The sacrifices we make to build these prisons are astonishing. Between 1987 and 2007, state spending on prisons increased by 40 percent (as a percent of the general fund). State spending on higher education decreased by 30 percent. We are financing our prisons by cutting our colleges.

We continue to build even though prisons are often disappointing for economic development. The best jobs go to people from out of town, and dollars spent on prisons have little "multiplier" effect. They don't generate future additional dollars of economic activity, as do dollars spent on transportation, schools and so forth. Every dollar invested in highway construction generates $2.50 of gross domestic product in the short term. Raising teacher wages by 10 percent is associated with a 5 percent decrease in drop-out rates. But still we shortchange our schools and other rural enterprise, and build new prisons.

The solution is to recognize that prisons have an economic logic of their own. The Pentagon budget is understood as a combination of military necessity and commercial interests. We need to understand the appeal prisons offer to struggling rural communities in the same way.

The challenge is to break the link between prison as industry and prison as crime control. The challenge is to show a way out for governors and legislators who want to reduce the burden of the corrections budget but genuinely cannot because of the immediate and legitimate trouble it causes to their constituencies.

HERE'S HOW: As our new federal leaders develop plans for stimulus and infrastructure investment, they should self-consciously direct resources to break the link between prisons and the dependent rural economies. They should create a grant program to help states transition from prison economies to more productive uses.

People are ready for this kind of change. Way back in 1999, when there were half a million fewer people in American prisons and jails, John DiIulio, one of the main movers behind the prison explosion, said we had reached a point of diminishing returns. But we can’t change course; the transition costs are too high:
  • Drug treatment and prevention programs are cheaper in the long run, but they cost money up front to start.
  • Cost savings to some are job losses to others. Especially when the programs go to scale and entire prisons are shut down or construction projects avoided. What should people do in the interim?
That's where federal assistance can come in. Part of the infrastructure/investment/stimulus money can be directed to cover transitional costs out of the prison economy. A few billion dollars of federal money in the short term can help states break the prison hammerlock, and free them to redirect tens of billions of state dollars to other purposes – from schools to roads to hospitals.

That's the proposal: A federal grant program that helps states manage transitional costs in the short run. Much like the federal VOI/TIS Justice Department grant program helped build prisons in the 1990s, a transition grant program can help to unbuild them in the 2000s (perhaps best administered by the Commerce Department). Let the laboratories of democracy experiment over techniques, but the federal government can help ease the transition.

It's a modest investment for the federal government that can yield substantial dividends quickly. But it needs to be consciously identified as a goal. Left alone the prison autopilot will continue to rise.

*This well-researched essay (check out some of the many embedded links for more) is reprinted from the Campaign for America's Future with the written permission of the author. Eric Lotke, an attorney, is Research Director at the Campaign for America's Future. Previously he served as Policy Director at the Justice Policy Institute, and was a Soros Foundation Senior Justice Fellow. He has authored path-breaking research on the criminal justice system, including patterns of juvenile homicide, the demographics of incarceration, and the political and financial consequences of the U.S. Census Bureau counting people in prison where they are confined rather than their original homes. More on his impressive background and good works is here.

December 8, 2008

New book explodes myth that innocent do not confess

Innocent people do not confess. Especially to rape and murder.

That is the belief of most people, including jurors, judges, attorneys, and even the very police detectives who induce false confessions. The Norfolk Four case is the perfect vehicle to challenge our misguided faith. And Tom Wells and Richard Leo are the ideal storytellers: Wells followed the case for seven years; Leo is a leading expert on the social psychology of police interrogation. The book is meticulously researched, through primary source documents and dozens of interviews.

The Wrong Guys: Murder, False Confessions, and the Norfolk Four
reads like a Stephen King novel but provides a step-by-step deconstruction of the bizarre case of the Norfolk Four, explaining the individual, situational, and systemic factors that converge in a typical false confession case.

More on the Norfolk Four case is online here; the publisher's web page is here. My longer review is forthcoming from California Lawyer magazine.

December 3, 2008

Cyberbullying verdict raises legal questions

Running neck-and-neck in the Bad Behavior Gone Wild category are the shoppers who trampled a poor Wal-Mart worker to death in Long Island and the Missouri woman who bullied a 13-year-old until the depressed girl hanged herself.

But while everyone is outraged by both cases, last week's criminal conviction in the cyberbullying case has troubling implications about the criminalization of the Internet.

A federal jury convicted Lori Drew of three misdemeanor counts of computer fraud for misrepresenting herself as a teenage boy on the popular MySpace social networking site. Jurors apparently agreed with prosecutors that creating a phone profile constituted "unauthorized access" to MySpace, under a federal law that previously was used only to prosecute hackers.

Analyzing the verdict's implications is Brian Stelter of the New York Times:
While the Internet's anonymity was used in this case as a cloak to bully Megan, other users say they have perfectly good reasons to construct false identities online, if only to help protect against the theft of personal information, for example. "It will be interesting to see if issues of safety and security will eventually trump the hallmark ideology of free, largely anonymous or pseudonymous participation in cyberspace," said Sameer Hinduja, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University. Andrew M. Grossman, senior legal policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, said the possibility of being prosecuted for online misrepresentation, while remote, should worry users nonetheless. "If this verdict stands," Mr. Grossman said, "it means that every site on the Internet gets to define the criminal law. That's a radical change. What used to be small-stakes contracts become high-stakes criminal prohibitions."
Danah Boyd of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society expressed perhaps the broadest perspective:
"There are lots of kids hurting badly online,” she said. "And guess what? They’re hurting badly offline, too. Because it's more visible online, people are blaming technology rather than trying to solve the underlying problems of the kids that are hurting."
The full story is here.

December 2, 2008

Move over, Guantanamo - here comes Wisconsin

Lifetime detention for misconduct at age 14?

When he was 14 years old, Daniel Arends made a big mistake. He sexually assaulted an autistic boy. He was adjudicated as a delinquent.

Then, he made some other mistakes. His juvenile detention was extended several times for sexual contact with other boys.

When he turned 17, he learned just how much trouble he was in. He became the first juvenile that the state of Wisconsin sought to detain indefinitely under its "Sexually Violent Person" civil commitment law. He was committed to the Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center in 2005, and he has remained there ever since. He is now 22.

Technically, there is a way for Daniel to get out of this potentially lifelong incarceration. All he must do is show that he has changed so that he no longer meets the legal criteria of being "more likely than not to commit a future act of sexual violence."

The Catch-22 is, how can one prove something like that from behind bars?

One potential method is through expert evidence. A psychologist, Dr. Sheila J. Fields, evaluated him, administered a series of tests, and wrote a favorable report stating that in her opinion he had indeed changed. He had successfully progressed in the treatment program and his score on the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R) was now lower. She noted that his last incident of criminal sexual activity occurred when he was 14, and there had been no reports of inappropriate sexual behavior since October 2003.

In her report, Dr. Fields also discussed some of the problems I have been blogging about lately, such as the difficulty of accurately predicting adult sexual recidivism from juvenile misconduct, and reliability problems with Daniel's diagnosis, Antisocial Personality Disorder.

Based on this favorable report, Daniel petitioned the court for a hearing on whether he still meets the civil commitment criteria. The government of Wisconsin, however, opposed the hearing, arguing Daniel was not entitled to it unless he could actually "prove" in his petition that his condition "had changed."

The local court agreed, and denied Daniel the right to even be heard in court. Shades of Guantanamo, right?

Daniel appealed, and the Wisconsin Appellate Court agreed with him. The standard for getting a hearing, the appellate court ruled, is whether the person has presented facts in his petition from which a judge or a jury “may” conclude that he has changed. In other words, he is not required to prove that he actually has changed just to get an evidentiary hearing.

The case will go back to the lower court for an evidentiary hearing. That does not mean Daniel will be released, though. For that, we'll have to stay tuned.

The Nov. 19 appellate ruling in State v. Arends (2008AP52) is online here. News coverage in the Journal Sentinel of Milwaukee is here.
Hat tip: Steve Erickson