April 3, 2010

Delusional campaign for a world without risk

Convicted sex offender Anthony Sowell seemed run-of-the-mill. He scored a low "1" on the Static-99, the popular actuarial tool designed to quantify risk for sexual recidivism. Now, he is suspected in the murders of 11 women whose remains were found at his Cleveland, Ohio home. (His publicly leaked risk evaluation is HERE.)

John Albert Gardner III, who like Oscar-winning film director Roman Polanski was convicted of molesting a 13-year-old girl, looked almost as routine. Paroling after a 5-year prison stint, he scored a "2" on the Static. Now, he stands charged with the highly publicized San Diego rape-murder of teenager Chelsea King.

While the United States crashes and burns -- jobs disappearing, home values plummeting, public school teachers begging for basic supplies like paper and pencils -- politicians are hosting emergency hearings to determine "what went wrong."

Who you gonna blame? The Static-99

The same California politicians who enthusiastically enacted a law -- the ambitiously titled Sex Offender Control and Containment Act of 2006 -- mandating the use of this scientifically flawed actuarial tool are now jumping all over prison bureaucrats for mandating its use to determine which paroling sex offenders should be most carefully monitored. Maybe they should have listened to those who have been saying all along that actuarial tools are not a panacea.

When I got a call from a news reporter exploring that angle, I found myself in the amusing position of (half-heartedly) defending the Static-99. As I tried to explain to the reporter (who then misquoted me), finding a needle in a haystack ain’t easy. At the risk of sounding perseverative: it's the statistical problem of low base rates. If only about one of every ten paroling sex offenders will reoffend sexually, picking out that one is difficult. And picking the one who will commit an exceedingly rare crime like the Chelsea King murder is virtually impossible. The hysterical masses can't seem to grasp that:
  • The broad majority of men who are apprehended and prosecuted for a sex offense are never rearrested for another, and
  • The broad majority of sex crimes are committed by men who fly below the radar because they have never been apprehended before. To catch these guys, you'd have to engage in massive over-prediction, producing an epidemic of what we call "false positives."
And that's just what the mobs are calling for. As one man in the crowd lobbying for the new "Chelsea's Law" put it, anyone who "touches a child" should automatically lose all Constitutional rights.

Be careful what you wish for. Even in a fascist police state, bad stuff will still happen. In fact, a misplaced emphasis on eliminating risk will paradoxically decrease public safety, by eliminating primary prevention programs that actually work to reduce crime. In California, prison officials told an emergency meeting of the Assembly Select Committee on Prisons and Rehabilitation Reform they would need $1 billion more each a year to return every paroled sex offender to prison on the basis of minor violations like Gardner's. That would mean taking even more pencils away from teachers in a state near bankrupted by its massive prison infrastructure.

All aboard the opportunist train

It's understandable why parents of crime victims like Chelsea King lobby for tougher laws. It's a way to deny their impotence and channel their feelings of sadness, guilt and rage.

And it's similarly easy to understand why politicians jump on the bandwagon. Powerless to fix our shattered economy and lacking the political will to tackle more complex social problems, they seize on random horrors to make themselves look good. Illusory efficacy wins votes.

And then the other opportunists jump on board. Crime Victims United used this week's hearing to lobby against early release of nonviolent prisoners. (Can you say non sequitur?)

Not to be outdone, a group of embittered forensic psychologists have jumped on the Chelsea bandwagon. Forming a secret "consortium," they have complained to the state Attorney General's Office that if they were still evaluating paroling prisoners for potential civil commitment as Sexually Violent Predators (SVP's), they would have done a better job of protecting the public. The evaluators, who are shielding their identities through an attorney, claim that the state's new contract bidding policy for SVP evaluations "results in the loss of life of untold victims" "for the sake of economic expediency." Their propaganda, aired on the incendiary Larry King Live show, conveniently omits mention of their pecuniary interest: Many of these state contractors were billing more than $1 million per year, again while school teachers begged for budget crumbs.

Cultural Myopia and moral relativism

Underlying these empty moral campaigns are a set of intertwined myths and lopsided values:
  • Rare sex crimes are a significant threat to public safety. As the mob vents its impotent rage against the government and its spawn -- the mythical sexual predator -- the fact remains that the biggest killer of 15- to 24-year-olds worldwide remains motor vehicle accidents. The is followed closely by suicides, the fourth-leading killer of children over age 10 in seven developed nations.
  • Only sex crimes count. Is sexual assault really all that much worse than murder, torture, or other serious crimes? Why is it treated so differently? Are legislatures assigning as much resources to combating the "pseudocommander mass murderer" or the burgeoning militia movement stoked up by its racist hatred of Obama?
  • Only a certain type of sex crime counts. Many of the same angry folks who want to suspend the Constitutional rights of some accused sex criminals are busy defending others. When the Chelsea King case broke, the reaction to another breaking sex crime story was its polar opposite. Responding to news that star football quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of a second rape, media pundits went wild on lying, gold-digging women who falsely accuse men of rape. In fact, some of the men who most vitriolically despise sexual predators are rapists themselves. Rape is endemic on many college campuses, with fraternity boys virtually immune from prosecution. As an excellent National Public Radio series describes, young men face few consequences for using alcohol as weapon with which to sexually assault naive young women who are then often forced to quit school. If we really want to make the world a safer place, we need to look a little closer to home. Instead of focusing on an easy bogeyman, let's put our efforts into primary prevention of rape and child molestation. And if we truly want to stop criminals from reoffending, let's not eliminate rehabilitation programs in prison!

  • Science is capable of eliminating (or at least drastically reducing) risk. The search for blame has become reflexive. Whenever anything bad happens, the what-went-wrong tenor of media coverage encourages finger-pointing, public wrath, and -- ultimately -- pointless (or worse) legal tweaks by opportunist politicians. When hoodlums sneak into a zoo and taunt a tiger into attacking them, it's the zoo's fault for not building high enough fences. (Remember that 2007 case?) When a speeding truck careens over the side of a bridge, traffic engineers get blamed. "They" -- shorthand for the amorphous "government" -- can never do enough to protect their citizens from all conceivable danger.
It's hard to accept that random danger is a part of life. Sometimes, bad stuff just happens.


Anonymous said...

Karen. Overall, a cogent and well written piece. You raise many point that I too have noted in the past. Drunk drivers killing teens is a particular bugaboo of mine. Each year drunk drivers kill 200 times the number of teen that die at the hands of sexual predators. Yet oddly enough, know one talks about them losing their constitutional rights. Instead, we have many drunk drivers with double digit convictions.

One quibble however. I disagree with you that the militia movement is being stirred up by racist hatred of Obama. Just like sex offending, what drives people to militias is complex and it's wise to avoid overly simplistic explanations in that field of inquiry as much as it with sex offenders.

Anonymous said...

Nice rant! (I mean that in a positive way.)

One point I'd like to see explored further: The research suggests, of course, that actuarial prediction is better than subjective prediction. Are these well-publicized failures just anecdotal exceptions and we should stand by these methods in the face of this kind of criticism? Or do they have essentially no value and we should give up and turn our attention elsewhere? Do these low base-rate situations make any attempt at prediction worthless?

Cavall de Quer said...

That's a really great piece! How rare clear thinking is getting!

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for all of your comments.

Anonymous Commenter 1:

Here's a link to a new report about the anti-Obama racism currently fueling the militia movement:


Anonymous Commenter 2:

The choices are not actuarial prediction versus "subjective" prediction. One can do empirically driven risk assessments either without using actuarials, or by using actuarials as just a starting point. Many SVP evaluators are starting to take these approaches. Here's more on the false assumption that actuarials necessarily outstrip clinical judgment:


(I sure wish commenters would identify themselves, but I guess that's what I get for allowing them to remain anonymous.)

Douglas Mossman said...

Great post, Dr. Franklin. Persons interested in a mathematical explanation can see my article, "The Imperfection of Protection Through Detection and Intervention: Lessons from Three Decades of Research on the Psychiatric Assessment of Violence Risk," J Legal Medicine, 2009;30:109-140. But your post makes the same points skillfully and more eloquently.

Anonymous said...

I am Anonymous #1. I'd actually like to not post anonymously. The problem is that I run a blog that has absolutely nothing to do with psychology. In the past, I have found that using my blogger account to identify myself results in a lot of trolls showing up to my blog and increasing the work load there. My other option is to manage several different online identities, which is a big pain.

So I thank you for allowing such anonymous posting. I understand why it makes having a conversation more difficult, but at least in my case it simply results from practicality.

As for the Obama article, there is an old quote that I like to keep in mind. "Everything you read in the press is true except for the 10% you personally know is false."

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Hello again "Anonymous #1": Yes, I get the problem with Google ID's. One alternative would be to use your "Anonymous" ID, but type a name at the bottom of your comment. Even a first name or a pseudonym.

Jay said...

Thanks Karen! It's refreshing to see some logic applied to this issue for a change.

I am a registered sex offender in San Diego County. I'm not proud of it, but I'm not hiding from it anymore. Just like any reformed offender of any type, I do feel remorse for my victim, and I do regret my poor choices that led to my offense, and with the help of therapy I have since corrected my past thinking errors that led to my bad behavior. Like others in my group, I took therapy very serious so that in the future I do not repeat my crime, or any others for that matter.

Right now I live in a stable home that I’ve owned for 15 years, but if the registry restrictions of Jessica's law are upheld in the courts, then there is a good chance I could become homeless because I would not be allowed to live here. I am self-employed, so if I become homeless, I could lose my business, and if I lose my business, I can’t support my kids… It’s a domino effect as you can see. Society doesn’t see that these laws affect more people than the just the offender.

Like many other offenders, we feel we have paid our debt to society, but we don’t feel that we or our families owe society a lifetime debt of misery. We are not asking for special treatment, we just want a stable home, a stable job, and to raise our family’s just like anyone else, and we want to be able to provide these for ourselves without hindrance from the state.

Karen, you wrote that John Gardner had a rating of a 2 on a scale of 10 on the static-99. So with such a low score, shouldn't we focus more attention on sex offender laws that place unnecessary stress on the offender after they have completed their sentences? If the reports were accurate about how upset he was over being forced by his parole officer to quit an excellent paying job, not being able to find a stable home, and being treated as a monster by society, then shouldn’t we take a closer look at the taunting of John Gardner?

Your analogy of the tiger was an excellent comparison to Gardner’s scenario. Unfortunately, I doubt society will take any of the responsibility for passing Jessica's and Megan's law. Instead of blaming the ones that taunt the tiger until he strikes back, they blame the restraints from failing to hold back the tiger while being taunted. They have become a mindless mob with the media and opportunistic politicians fanning the flames of fear into a mass hysteria.

cherokee49 said...

There are a lot of good points and wisdom in your comment Ray. Thank you for sharing and hopefully others will read what you wrote and take heed.