September 30, 2010

Courts should admit if "emperor wears no clothes"

SVP evidence must meet legal admissibility standards,
high court justice in Washington

The Supreme Court of Washington has made it easier for some civilly committed Sexually Violent Predators (SVP's) to challenge their detentions. In a 5-4 ruling, the high court struck down a state law restricting what types of evidence a sex offender may introduce to show he is no longer dangerous.

Under the invalidated law, an offender could only petition for release based on reduced risk due to either treatment or permanent physiological changes. An offender could not claim, for example, that he no longer met the legal criteria for civil commitment (having a mental disorder that made him more likely than not to reoffend sexually) based solely on advancing age or maturation, even though these factors are strongly associated with desistance.

Most intriguing was the concurring opinion of Justice Richard B. Sanders. The justice rebuked the trial judge for abdicating his role as gatekeeper to ensure that scientific evidence admitted in court is reliable and valid. The trial court accepted the testimony of the government experts without considering whether they were scientifically valid, while summarily dismissing the opinions of the lone defense expert, Sanders noted.

In his declaration for the defense, psychiatrist Lee Coleman had challenged the science underlying the prosecution witnesses' risk assessments, diagnoses, and opinions. In particular, he disputed the legitimacy of the makeshift diagnosis of "paraphilia, not otherwise specified," i.e., "sexual activity with non-consenting females" assigned to convicted rapist David McCuistion:
Dr. [Carole] DeMarco claims that 'Paraphilia Not Otherwise Specified (Nonconsent) is an accepted diagnosis among practitioners knowledgeable about sexual offenders.' I believe it would be more accurate to say that the only practitioners who use this label are those who perform SVP evaluations. But regardless of how many use it, the so-called 'diagnosis' is obviously nothing more than doublespeak for the crime of rape. If this is the best the evaluators are capable of doing … surely it means that the entire evaluation process is a sham created to fulfill legal and legislative agendas.

As a 'dynamic risk factor' (characteristics that could change over time, as opposed to the static nature of one's criminal past), she wrote that Mr. McCuistion 'continues to associate with individuals who have an antisocial attitude and engage in a high level of fault finding with SCC rules and policies indicating an antisocial lifestyle.' Given the universal recognition by SVP inmates that the evaluation and treatment program is based on a law that has no recognized basis in science or psychology, it is totally unacceptable to equate 'fault finding with SCC rules and policies' with risk of sexual re-offending.
Commented Justice Sanders:
The trial court accepted the State experts' testimony without considering whether they were valid under Frye [the evidence admissibility standard in Washington] but proceeded to reject Dr. Coleman’s testimony out of hand:

'Dr. Coleman’s report and conclusion are contrary to the conclusions reached by previous examiners of Mr. McCuistion, and is essentially a re-argument of the original finding that Mr. McCuistion is a sexually violent predator. That Dr. Coleman disagrees with past examiners and fact-finders does not, itself, make his opinion the correct one.'

And yet that doesn’t make his opinion wrong either….

Where a person is deprived of his or her freedom based upon opinion testimony lacking scientific credibility, reliability, and accepted methodology, courts must step forward and announce with the courage of a small child that the Emperor wears no clothes.
No clothes, huh? Is it possible that the times they are a-changin'?

The majority opinion, concurring opinion, and dissent (saying the administrative costs and burdens of this ruling are too high) are all available online. Dr. Coleman's declaration is attached as Appendix A to Justice Sanders' concurring opinion.

September 28, 2010

Mother California: Essential prison reading

Imagine serving 30 years in prison with no end in sight. Would you survive? Would you not just survive, but actually grow as a person?

While serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole ("the other death sentence") in California's massive prison system, Kenneth Hartman morphed from a violent killer, "a 19-year-old thug from the blasted wasteland of South Los Angeles' urban, post-industrial decay," to an award-winning author, philosopher, and prison reformer.

The subtitle of his autobiography is "A Story of Redemption Behind Bars." But Mother California tells a story much bigger than one man's personal odyssey. Through Hartman, we witness how three decades of irrational, tough-on-crime rhetoric has plunged California's prisons into an abyss of despair, violence, and criminal recidivism, all the while emptying the state's financial coffers.

Take Christmas. When Hartman first came to prison, in the early 1980s, the cellblocks were decked out in holiday lights, wreaths, and trees. Prisoners decorated their cells with holiday cards from loved ones, the Salvation Army donated candy and nuts, and, in the visiting room, "one of the old guys dressed up as Santa Claus for pictures with the kids and the young wives."

Within 15 years, holidays had been banished. Santa was gone, along with the decorations and treats. Every day resembled the last in its dreary monotony. "The walls are the same unadorned concrete every day of the year. My first Christmas at Tehachapi, one of the guards got on the public address system to tell us about the great meal he would soon be enjoying, the time he would be spending with his family. We didn't deserve to be with our families, he ranted, we were just where we belonged and have a hearty Merry fucking Christmas."

Watching helplessly as his beloved weight-training equipment is loaded onto the back of a flatbed truck, Hartman realizes "how far the advocates of punishment-for-the-sake-of-inflicting pain will go to turn the clock back" and erase the progressive reforms won by prisoners during the 1970s.

Hartman articulately chronicles the divergent impacts of this tough-on-crime politicking on daily life in prison. At Tehachapi, one of the newer prisons, guards are hyper-aggressive and controlling. At Lancaster, in contrast, the guards have ceded control, locking themselves in their control centers and allowing unchecked chaos and violence. The chapel becomes a crack house, the odors of marijuana and pruno (home-made liquor) fill the air, and almost everyone is high and destitute.

The golden triad

That is how Hartman, in one of his many philosophical essays on the prison system, labels the three proven ingredients to reducing criminal recidivism:
  • Increased and enhanced visiting to build and maintain family ties
  • Higher education
  • Quality drug and alcohol treatment
Despite (or perhaps because of?) their effectiveness, the special-interest prison lobby has vigorously sabotaged all three, he writes:
In my 29 years, visiting has deteriorated from a slightly unpleasant experience to a hostile and traumatic acid bath that quite effectively destroys family ties.

Higher education is virtually nonexistent but for those few with the substantial resources needed to purchase it. In those rare cases where innovative ways have been found to bring education back into the prisons the special interest groups have mounted vicious campaigns to terminate the programs.

The opposition to drug and alcohol treatment, much more widely supported in the body politic, is subtler. Using the proven method of compulsory participation by the least amenable, those programs that are instituted are crippled in the normal chaos of prison.

All of this opposition stands behind the banner of protecting victims' rights, as if only the desire for revenge by past victims of crime matters, over even the potential losses of future victims.
The Honor Program

Determined to put his accumulated wisdom and principles into practice, Hartman worked with other prisoners and non-custody staff to design a special program at Lancaster Prison called the Honor Yard. Founded in 2000, the program provides a separate community for 600 men who have committed to living productive lives in which they give back to the community and make amends for past wrongdoings. They must commit to abstaining from gangs, violence, drugs, and racism.

In its first six years of operation, the Honor Program functioned without a single major violent incident, and saved the state millions of dollars. In the wake of its success, state Sen. Gloria Romero sponsored Senate Bill 299 to expand the program to other prisons. Gov. Arnold Schwarzegger, in his infinite wisdom, vetoed the bill.

Hartman's dream, according to a news article on the program, is to be able to live the remainder of his life in a violence-free environment where he can devote himself to his writing. One of his essays won a $10,000 writing prize, with the money going to his wife and daughter, conceived before California took away conjugal visit privileges from lifers. He is currently involved in a campaign to eliminate life sentences.

Instead of reading endless meaningless studies on psychopathy and such, we should spend more time in the real world, listening to articulate autodidacts like Hartman.

Kenneth Hartman's philosophical essays on prison are online HERE. More on the Honor Program, and efforts to save and expand it, is HERE. More on lifers in U.S. prisons is HERE.

If you enjoyed this review, I would appreciate your taking a quick moment to let me know by visiting my Amazon book review and click on "YES," this review was helpful.

Hat tip: Jules Burstein

September 27, 2010

Domestic violence risk training in Oregon

On October 15, Northwest Forensic Institute is presenting the latest in its series of high-quality forensic continuing education programs. It features Tonia Nicholls, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia and co-author of several violence risk assessment and prevention guides. Dr. Nicholls has provided dozens of violence risk trainings around the world. This one is titled, "An introduction to domestic violence risk assessment: Evidence to inform your practice."

Despite our preoccupation with 'stranger danger' (e.g., child abductions, stranger-rapes) it is a well-established fact that we are more likely to be assaulted or killed by a family member than by anyone else. Violence in families is so common as to be considered ubiquitous. Canadian and American data reveal similar rates of violence against women: around 1 in 5 women have ever experienced intimate partner violence and 2 to 4 percent of women suffered severe violence in the past year. The lifetime incidence rate for any form of domestic violence is approximately 19 percent. The lifetime incidence for severe or injurious domestic violence is about 8 percent.
Accurate risk assessments with perpetrators of intimate partner abuse are important for a variety of diverse reasons. A proper assessment should lead to informed safety planning for the victim(s) and case management for the perpetrator. Good risk evaluations can help to ensure the appropriate division of scarce resources to those individuals and families in greatest need and prevent the disruption of intact families who might actually suffer unnecessarily as a result of intrusive interventions. The information gleaned from a good evaluation can also be essential for assisting victims and their advocates in relevant civil (e.g., divorce or custody disputes) and criminal proceedings.
The training is co-sponsored by the Portland State University and will earn mental health professionals 6 hours of CE credits; accreditation for 6 hours of CLE for attorneys is pending. The fee is $175 for professionals and $75 for students. For more information and to register, visit the Institute's WEBSITE or call (503) 413-0685.

September 26, 2010

Garrido to undergo competency evaluation

The attorney for Phillip Garrido, the man who gained worldwide infamy last year in the alleged abduction of Jaycee Dugard, has raised a doubt as to whether Garrido is competent to stand trial.

"This is a fundamental fairness issue," his attorney, Susan Gellman, a deputy public defender in El Dorado County, told a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. "What we're talking about here is whether or not a citizen is able to make a decision about his case. When someone wants to go to trial for crazy reasons, or not go to trial for crazy reasons, that person is not competent." She noted persistent trouble communicating with Garrido during her more than 20 meetings with him at the jail.

As I explained in my analysis of the case in the Guardian of UK last August, psychiatric issues -- including competency and perhaps insanity -- are sure to be prominent in this case due to Garrido's history of religious delusions. Through the wonders of the Internet, I wrote at the time, we can "travel back in time and enter his mind, via rambling blog posts about voices in his head, mind control, and religious delusions of himself as the savior." (Amazingly, his contemporaneous "Voices Revealed" blog is still online, for those of you who want to take a gander.)

At Friday's court hearing in El Dorado County, Judge Douglas Phimister commented that he had spotted strange behavior during his limited observations of the defendant in court. At times, he noted, "Garrido aggressively scribbled notes in a pad even though little was going on in court."

Demian Bulwa's San Francisco Chronicle account is HERE. My August 2009 analysis in the Guardian of UK, "Jaycee Dugard, transfixed by a monster," is HERE. My Sept. 3, 2009 followup post on the case, "Sex-Registry Flaws Stand Out," has more background and links.
Photo credit: Rich Pedroncelli, AP

September 23, 2010

Static redux: Sandgropers jumping off rickety ship

Inventors of actuarial tools to assess sex offender risk recently described their process as "somewhat like rebuilding a ship at sea, continually replacing one plank at a time when we sprang a leak."

But while they viewed this method "as a strength, not a problem," others might reasonably regard staying aboard such a ship as a sure-fire way to drown.

Among those jumping ship are the Western Australians. Courts in Australia's largest state are increasingly rebuffing the Static-99, the world's leading actuarial tool for assessing sex offender risk.

In the latest of a string of cases, Justice John McKechnie has rejected an attempt by the Director of Public Prosecutions to civilly commit a convicted sex offender based on the man's high Static score. In his ruling, the judge criticized the "uncritical acceptance" of actuarial risk tools, saying they do not take into account reductions in risk that can accrue from prison-based treatment programs.

The ruling in the case of Leslie Fred Free is part of a "national backlash" against the Static by courts as well as legal and psychological researchers, according to a news report at The report quotes Bernadette McSherry, a law professor at Monash University who has been tracking cases in which Australian courts have rejected the Static-99.

Many question whether an instrument developed in North America is relevant or reliable for forensic use Down Under. In a 2007 decision, another Western Australian judge focused on the problem with applying the Static-99 to aboriginal offenders. Noted Judge Hasluck in the case of Robert Mangolamara, a young aboriginal man:
[T]he facts and assumptions underlying the assessment tools and related manuals have not been proved…. Moreover, [because] the tools were not devised for and do not necessarily take account of the social circumstances of indigenous Australians in remote communities, I harbour grave reservations as to whether a person of the respondent's background can be easily fitted within the categories of appraisal presently allowed for by the assessment tools.….
Sandgropers, as Western Australians are known, think of themselves as especially good-looking and intelligent. But even here in the less enlightened United States the mainstream forensic community is expressing growing skepticism about the science underlying the actuarials.

Forensic psychiatry journal issues scathing critique

The American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law has just published a scathing critique of the Static-99, saying it lacks each of two elements required for an accurate statistical method of calculating risk: representative samples and uniform measures of outcome.

The must-read article, "Alice in Actuarial-Land" (freely available online), provides a detailed overview of the dizzying changes in recommended norms and procedures for using and interpreting the Static family of instruments over the past decade.

The authors, Shoba Sreenivasan, Linda Weinberger, Allen Frances, and Sarah Cusworth-Walker, illustrate the resultant problems through the hypothetical case of "Mr. X," a 62-year-old rapist.
  • Using the original Static-99 norms, Mr. X's risk of sexually reoffending within 5 years of release falls somewhere between 9.1 percent and 39 percent. Qualitatively, in other words, he falls "somewhere between a low and a high risk."
  • Using the norms provided with the revised Static-99R instrument, Mr. X's risk lies between 8.7 percent and 29.6 percent by 10 years. Again, "somewhere between low and high risk."
Although the case of Mr. X is hypothetical, the judge in the Western Australia case of Mr. Free commented on similar discrepancies between the risk assessments of two forensic psychologists who both relied upon the Static-99. Wrote Judge McKechnie in his insightful analysis:
Dr. [Tara] Yewer's conclusion that [Mr. Free's] risk of re-offending over a five year period is nearly 10 percent more than Ms. [Kirstin] Bouse's conclusion over the same time span is unexplained in the evidence. There is no reason on the evidence why I should reject Ms. Bouse's assessment of 'medium-high' risk or accept in preference Dr. Yewer's assessment of 'high' risk. This application highlights the limitations of STATIC-99.

Any judge who engages in sentencing offenders undertakes some prediction of risk as part of the sentencing process, and does so against a background of principle and experience which suggests that, for example, many young people mature and grow out of crime. Others forsake illicit substances and alcohol and the criminal lifestyle that accompanied them. For some, a period of imprisonment has an actual deterrent effect....

Uncritical acceptance of the STATIC-99 score also negates the whole purpose of [sex offender treatment]. If the programme, to which significant resources are given, has no effect on the risk that participants might then pose to the community, why does the Department of Corrective Services bother with it? … In the present case, I am unable to accept uncritically the risk assessment undertaken by coding the STATIC-99 score, because of earlier reports suggesting the possibility of effective treatment … coupled with the respondent's actual performance [in treatment].
Astonishingly, high-stakes forensic decisions such as criminal sentencing and civil commitment are being made based on such wildly disparate interpretations of data. Also, the authors of the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law article point out, most of the data underlying the Static norms derive from master's or doctoral-level papers that were never published or subjected to the peer-review process:
Apart from the dizzying number of risk scores and qualifications, the validity of the risk scores themselves is dubious, given different definitions of recidivism in the norming samples, lack of clarity in statistical methods, and an overreliance on unpublished manuscripts and presentations to document methods….

The expression of risk in numerical form, whether it is a risk percentage, a d-statistic, or a receiver operating characteristic (ROC) or risk ratio, gives the trier of fact the impression of the precision of risk to a greater degree of accuracy than actually exists.

The serious nature of the sentencing decisions being made using these norms requires that these risk estimates are getting it right….

Although they purport to be empirically based, the current Static-99 and its newer iteration, the Static-99R, violate the basic tenets of evidence-based medicine that require reasoned, not mechanical, application of group findings to the individual.
Lead authors Sreenivasan and Weinberger are core faculty at the Institute of Psychiatry and Law of the University of Southern California. That's more than 10,000 miles from Western Australia. But perhaps they recently vacationed Down Under, and drank a bit of the Perth water.

If they sailed, I just hope they first checked the ship's safety record. Replacing planks at sea can be risky business. Especially if you hit a patch of rough weather.

Of related interest:
  • For readers interested in learning more about the Dangerous Sexual Offenders Act of Western Australia, as well as the rules of expert evidence admissibility more generally in Australia, I recommend the written decision in the 2007 case of Robert Anthony Mangolamara, available HERE.

September 21, 2010

Abuse rampant in California prisons

Mentally disabled prisoners in California are routinely beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted and deprived of food and sanitation. And in a "climate of indifference," prison officials have virtually ignored a 2001 court order mandating that they identify and protect these most vulnerable prisoners.

That was the opinion a federal judge issued last week in refusing to lift the 9-year-old court order. U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer's ruling followed a 6-day trial. The judge cited one instance in which a mentally disabled prisoner lost 35 pounds in five months because his cellmate was stealing his food and guards only laughed at him when he requested their help.

Sacramento Bee series: Prisoner abuse widespread

The judicial ruling echoes a stellar investigative series by reporter Charles Piller of the Sacramento Bee, who obtained and analyzed thousands of pages of documents and interviewed dozens of insiders, including confidential sources. The resulting picture of the inside of California prisons is not pretty:
  • Guards fabricating rule violations that extended the time of prisoners they didn't like, including prisoner activists
  • Prisoners losing "good time" credits for breaking minor rules, such as stepping across a line on the concrete
  • A rigged system in which nearly all prisoners charged with rule violations are found guilty, and appeals or complaints against guards are fruitless
  • Light discipline even when officers severely injure or kill prisoners
In one case, an officer needlessly punched a prisoner in the head, broke his elbows, and then lied about it in reports. The penalty? A 12-day suspension.

"The degree of civilization in a society
can be judged by entering its prisons."

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1860)

Undermining the appeals process, according to prisoners and former officers, is prisoners' fear of retaliation. Edgar Martinez, a former prisoner at High Desert, claimed that guards trampled his belongings and strip-searched him in a snow-covered yard. He said he watched guards provoke fights among inmates and tell others, "this [complaint] needs to go away or we're going to make your life a living hell." Afterward, Martinez said, he was too terrified to protest the mistreatment.

In a 2007 case, guards viciously beat several prisoners and denied them adequate medical treatment, yet not a single one filed a complaint, according to a former lieutenant named Gerald Edwards. Prisoners know that filing a complaint may lead to retaliation, including being shipped off to a different prison dominated by racial or ethnic enemies.

Behavior modification units a living hell

If routine conditions are bad, they are nothing compared to the cruelty, corruption and racism that Piller found when he investigated the so-called behavior modification units.

High Desert State Prison. Photo credit: Ben Kutchins, "Prison Town USA"

These are the units where recalcitrant prisoners, disproportionately African American, are subjected to "extreme isolation and deprivation -- long periods in a cell without education, social contact, TV or radio." A prisoner at the Salinas Valley unit went five months without exercise, sunlight or fresh air, according to his successful lawsuit. At the High Desert facility, prisoners described "hours-long strip-searches in a snow-covered exercise yard. They said correctional officers tried to provoke attacks between inmates, spread human excrement on cell doors and roughed up those who peacefully resisted mistreatment. One said guards contaminated prisoners' food with dirt and insects and starved those who complained.

Many of the prisoners' claims were backed by legal and administrative filings, and signed affidavits, which together depicted an environment of brutality, corruption and fear." As Edward Thomas, a former prisoner in the High Desert unit, described it, it was "like something that happens in a concentration camp."

"Black monkey unit": Abuse based on skin color

While about a third of California prisoners are black, blacks comprised a majority of prisoners subjected to the High Desert behavior unit. Guards referred to the unit as the "black monkey unit" and joked about how the "monkeys" are "always hanging around in there" -- a macabre reference to suicide attempts by prisoners of color.

"Guards seemed to view behavior modification as a license to make inmates as miserable as possible to compel obedience," Piller reported.

"Several inmates described an incident when staff left one inmate on the floor with rectal bleeding and refused to take him to get medical attention," according to the report of a group of state researchers. When guards arrived, "they said 'It's the f---ing n----- again, let him die.' And they left him there."

Their July 2007 visit to High Desert shook up the state researchers, said one, a sociologist who lectures at UC Davis and has more than 25 years of corrections research experience. Norm Skonovd said he had never seen a similar case. The researchers were allegedly chastised when they reported what they had seen, and were told to tone down and bury the prisoner allegations of abuse. Skonovd claims he suffered professional retaliation.

Correctional abuse: A cause of violence and recidivism?

Prisoners said the behavior modification units were so dreaded that they would act out so they would be placed in "the hole" instead. This, the researchers noted, could lead to more violence behind bars. Indeed, although the units were "sold to lawmakers as a way to reduce recidivism," their brutality would likely lead to more anger and, hence, more convicts returning to prison, the researchers theorized.

For you blog readers who aren’t from California, why should you care?

Because, like Milan is to the fashion industry, so California is a trendsetter for the global prison industry. You all know by now that the USA is the world's premiere Prison Nation, locking up 1 out of 100 residents. But if California were a country, we would rank seventh in the world -- behind the USA, China, Russia, and a handful of others. (That's by raw numbers. If you go by proportion of the population incarcerated, we fall further back; only one out of every 36 adult Californians is under correctional control, compared with a whopping one out of 13 adult Georgians. Hint: Maps showing rates of incarceration for U.S. states look eerily similar when juxtaposed with maps showing states' proportions of African Americans. Click on the links to see for yourself.)

I highly encourage all of you to read the Bee series (available HERE). Muckraking journalism is practically dead these days, with the daily news biz more and more resembling interchangeable strip malls along the highways -- corporate-owned, homogenized, and full of quick-and-dirty crime bytes. And the prison news beat is especially hard to cover, because access is so highly controlled and critical information subjected to censorship (as "Red Hog" reported in Committing Journalism).

I wonder how Dostoyevsky would have rated the civilization level of modern California.

Update: High court won't block Lewis execution

The U.S. Supreme Court has just refused to block the execution of Teresa Lewis, whom I blogged about Sept. 8, setting the stage for Virginia's first execution of a woman in nearly a century. Lewis is scheduled to die by injection Thursday for hiring two men to kill her husband and stepson for a quarter-million dollar insurance payout.

Two of the three women on the high court, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, voted to stop the execution. The court did not otherwise comment on its order Tuesday.

Lewis's supporters have argued that she does not deserve to die because she is borderline mentally retarded and was manipulated by a smarter conspirator. It is unfair, they say, that she was sentenced to death while the two triggermen received life sentences, writes Washington Post crime scene blogger Maria Blod.

A CBS video interview with Lewis is HERE. Reaction from Iran is HERE.

September 19, 2010

Science often disbelieved, study finds

How many times have you found yourself in court, being challenged on basic information that is virtually undisputed and noncontroversial among scientists? As it turns out, no matter how knowledgeable you are, or how great your credentials, judges or jurors may disbelieve the scientific evidence you are presenting if it does not match their social values.

That's no big surprise, given decades of social psychology research into cognitive dissonance. But a study funded by the National Science Foundation and scheduled for publication in the Journal of Risk Research sheds new light on why "scientific consensus" fails to persuade.

Study participants were much more likely to see a scientist with elite credentials as an "expert" on such culturally contested issues as global warming, gun control, and the risks of nuclear waste disposal if the expert's position matched the participant's own political leanings.

"These are all matters on which the National Academy of Sciences has issued 'expert consensus' reports," said lead author Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale University. "Using the reports as a benchmark, no cultural group in our study was more likely than any other to be 'getting it right,' i.e., correctly identifying scientific consensus on these issues. They were all just as likely to report that 'most' scientists favor the position rejected by the National Academy of Sciences expert consensus report if the report reached a conclusion contrary to their own cultural predispositions."

The findings suggest that mere education alone will not increase people's willingness to accept scientific consensus as accurate, said co-author Donald Braman, a law professor at George Washington University. "To make sure people form unbiased perceptions of what scientists are discovering, it is necessary to use communication strategies that reduce the likelihood that citizens of diverse values will find scientific findings threatening to their cultural commitments."

Information sources more atomized

Unfortunately, trends in public consumption of news may make this task increasingly difficult. Although people are spending at least as much time as ever on the news, they are less likely to read the daily newspaper and more likely to get their information from television and online sources including, most recently, their telephones, according to an informative new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. This decreases our common knowledge base and makes it easier for ideologically slanted information sources to influence public opinion.

Indeed, the Pew researchers found ideology inextricably linked with people's choices of news sources. For example, here in the United States, Republicans, conservatives, and so-called "Tea Party" enthusiasts were much more likely than the general public to watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh. In contrast, the researchers found, supporters of gay rights make up large shares of regular readers of the New York Times and listeners at National Public Radio.

In an interesting analysis of the mainstreaming of extremism, alternative journalist Arun Gupta points out the ease with which political pundits for whom facts are irrelevant can indoctrinate the uninformed. A respondent committed to rational scientific inquiry becomes like a dog chasing its tail: In the time it takes to deconstruct one fraudulent news story, the pundits have concocted five more.

Top myths of popular psychology

For a great myth-busting tool, I recommend Scott Lilienfeld's latest, 50 great Myths of Popular Psychology. Lilienfeld and co-authors Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and the late Barry Beyerstein provide dozens of examples of entrenched popular beliefs that have been debunked by high-quality research, many relevant to forensic practice. A few examples:
  • Human memory works like a tape recorder or video camera, and accurately records the events we have experienced
  • Abstinence is the only effective treatment for problem drinking
  • Criminal profiling helps solve crimes
(You'll remember that last one from my most recent post.)

Given the public's increasingly atomized sources of information, it behooves us to be knowledgeable about both ideological influences and common myths. What an expert witness might naively regard as established science may, after all, be subject to disbelief.

A blogger responds:

"Science, Believing Is Believing," Scott H. Greenfield, Esq. at Simple Justice

The featured research:

September 17, 2010

Forensic psych professor slams video game law

A forensic psychology professor and leading researcher of violence and video games has published an editorial in the Salt Lake City Tribune condemning attempts to restrict violent video games as a "waste of taxpayer money."

Christopher Ferguson, an associate professor at Texas A&M University, wants Utah's Attorney General to sign an amicus brief opposing California's Assembly Bill 1179. An appellate court struck down that law, but California has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is slated to hear the case this fall. The law would criminalize selling or renting video games deemed "violent" to consumers under age 18.

Ferguson claims it is "simply dishonest" to imply that research consistently links video games with violence:
First, there is no consistent research indicating that video games cause increased violence. Studies of video game effects return weak and mixed results. Many studies are limited by poor methodology, and some scholars do seem eager to promote negative links, oftentimes ignoring inconsistent data from their own results. The most recent Surgeon General’s report downplayed the influence of media violence, as did a recent Secret Service report on school shooters.

My own research, published in peer-reviewed journals in pediatrics, psychology and criminal justice, has found no links between violent video game playing and violent behavior. Other researchers, such as Cheryl Olson, Lawrence Kutner, Dmitri Williams, John Colwell, among others, have come to similar conclusions. Others, such as Patrick Markey, suggest that perhaps video game violence is like peanut butter, a harmless indulgence for the vast majority of children, but perhaps something to be avoided for a tiny minority of children, particularly those already disposed to pathological violent behavior.

Second, as video games have become more popular and more violent in the past two decades, violent crimes among both youth and adults have gone down to their lowest levels since the 1960s. Indeed, if there is a correlation between video game violence and violent crimes, it is in the opposite direction as that suggested by proponents of the California bill. I’m not saying video games have made the United States less violent; we don’t know that. However, the waves of youth violence some anti-game activists have feared simply never materialized….

My understanding is that California is experiencing difficult financial times and has cut valuable services to needy individuals, including many families and children. It is ironic that the state would claim to champion the welfare of children by throwing money at a video game bill that will help no one, yet cut basic health, education and support services to countless children.
Vending Times has additional coverage and background information HERE.

Sept. 21 postscript:

States Join Media Groups in Briefs Opposing California's Violent Video Game Ban, National Law Journal

September 14, 2010

Backlash growing against criminal profiling

UK Guardian: "Psychological profiling 'worse than useless' "

In the beginning, there was Malcolm Gladwell's 2007 masterpiece in the New Yorker, exposing criminal profiling as clever sleight of hand. Three years later, reports in both New Scientist and the Guardian of UK are expressing mounting concerns over the pseudoscientific technique made bigger than life in fictional TV shows.

Leading the backlash is psychology professor Craig Jackson of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University. He will critique the scientific validity of profiling at the British Science Festival this week. Not only is profiling unscientific, say Jackson and a growing chorus of others, but it risks bringing the field of psychology into disrepute. As Ian Sample reports in today's Guardian:
In many cases, offender profiles are so vague as to be meaningless, according to psychologist Craig Jackson. At best, they have little impact on murder investigations; at worst they risk misleading investigators and waste police time, he said.

"Behavioural profiling has never led to the direct apprehension of a serial killer, a murderer, or a spree killer, so it seems to have no real-world value," Jackson said.
Despite profiling's lack of demonstrated validity, police forces around the world bring in behavioral experts in complex or high-profile cases, often to appease victims' families or the media. In the UK, for example, The Home Office keeps a register of experts who are qualified to render offender profiles based on crime information, the Guardian reports.
"It is given too much credibility as a scientific discipline. This is a serious issue that psychologists and behavioural scientists need to address," [Jackson] said. "People believe psychologists like 'Cracker' can exist." In the 1990s television series, police apprehended criminals with help from an overweight, chain-smoking alcoholic psychologist.

Jackson quoted one behavioural scientist as saying he "climbs inside the minds of monsters" and "takes the expression frozen on the face of a murder victim and works backwards."

"They bring themselves forward as if they are shamans who are cursed by nightmares and picturing dead people," Jackson said.
Jackson argues that, since people from marginalized groups are the primary victims of murder, "if we really want to deliver on the objective of reducing the numbers of people who fall victim to violent crime, then we would be just as well concentrating on eradicating homophobia, prejudice against sex workers and the elderly, rather than 'delving' into the heads of serial killers."

In an interview published today in the London Evening-Standard, the vice-chair of the British Psychological Society's forensic psychology division distanced forensic psychologists from criminal profiling. Carol Ireland said forensic psychologists worked in a wide range of areas, including offender risk assessments and interventions, helping victims, and conducting research.

A critical report by Jackson and two colleagues, "Against the Medical-Psychological Tradition of Understanding Serial Killing by Studying the Killers," is slated for publication next month in the legal journal Amicus Curiae, published by the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies at the University of London.

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September 13, 2010

Paradoxical finding on juvenile sex offender risk

Leading tools cannot distinguish among delinquent boys

New tools designed to predict sex offender recidivism risk among juveniles continue to generate controversy and confusion. Some studies find that they work a bit better than the flip of a coin, and some find that they don't. Now, a new study out of Canada adds a paradoxical twist to the mix.

On two leading instruments, generally delinquent juveniles with a prior sex offense scored higher in risk than juveniles who had committed only sex offenses. And, true to this prediction, about 13 percent of these delinquent boys went on to commit another sex offense during the 6.6-year followup period, compared with just 7 percent of the boys with only sex offenses.

But, while they did moderately well at predicting risk among the non-delinquent juveniles, neither tool could reliably predict which among the delinquent, higher-risk youngsters would go on to reoffend sexually. The two instruments were the Juvenile Sex Offender Assessment Protocol-II (J-SOAP-II) and the Estimate of Risk of Adolescent Sexual Offense Recidivism (ERASOR).

A number of factors contribute to the difficulties in accurately predicting risk, especially among juveniles. These include:
  • Adolescent immaturity -- most juvenile offending is time-limited, and will spontaneously cease over time.
  • Low base rates -- it is hard to accurately predict events that have a low likelihood of occurring. In the current study, for example, only 9.4 percent of the youths were charged with another sex offense during the followup period.
  • Situational and random influences -- A lot of offending, especially among juveniles, is due to situational and environmental factors rather than personality variables, and these are extraordinarily hard to predict. (See this PSYBLOG post for a social psychology experiment demonstrating the underappreciated influence of situational variables.)
It all gets back to the larger problem I discussed in last week's report on the British metaanalysis of violence risk prediction tools: Maybe we will never find the Holy Grail. Maybe we've reached the summit of the mountain, and it’s time to step back.

The new study, by Gordana Rajlic and Heather M. Gretton of the Youth Forensic Psychiatric Services in Burnaby, British Columbia, is "An Examination of Two Sexual Recidivism Risk Measures in Adolescent Offenders: The Moderating Effect of Offender Type." It was published in the latest issue of Criminal Justice and Behavior and is available for free from Sage Publications for a limited time.

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September 8, 2010

Mentally challenged Virginia woman facing death

While all eyes are on Iran's (just suspended) threat to stone a woman to death, a mentally challenged woman in the U.S. state of Virginia faces a more obscure death this month at the hands of her government.

The case of Teresa Lewis is one of dozens of skirmishes in U.S. death penalty states spawned by the Supreme Court's 2002 decision outlawing capital punishment for the mentally retarded. In the years since the Atkins ruling, an estimated 7 percent of condemned prisoners have filed claims on the basis of mental retardation, with about 40 percent succeeding in getting their death sentences overturned.

Central to these battles are opposing experts in forensic psychology. Their role illustrates the fundamental problem with science in court. The law asks a simple, black-and-white question: Is this person's IQ above or below the magic threshold for mental retardation (typically, an IQ score of 70)? Lewis scored 73 and 70 on IQ tests administered since her trial. Such minimal score differences are within the range of random fluctuations and are practically meaningless in a clinical context. But in the legal context, they can be the difference between life and death.

Psychology, in contrast to the law, sees nuances and shades of gray. An IQ score is only one data point, and must be combined with other relevant information to give a meaningful picture of a person's functional capacities. Here, a central issue is Lewis's personality style.

Lewis was sentenced to die under the theory that she masterminded the killing of her husband and stepson for a $350,000 life insurance policy. Although both triggermen received life sentences, Judge Charles Strauss gave Lewis the death penalty, reasoning that she was "clearly the head of this serpent," according to an account in yesterday's Huffington Post.

But new evidence suggests Lewis may have been manipulated into the crime. In a letter written before he killed himself in prison, gunman Matthew Shallenberger said the crime was entirely his idea, and he deliberately manipulated Lewis because he needed money and she "was an easy target."

Three forensic psychology experts have diagnosed Lewis with a dependent personality disorder. She is reportedly so dependent on others that she cannot make even simple decisions such as what to buy at the grocery store. Lewis's chaplain at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women similarly described Lewis in a Newsweek essay appealing for clemency as "slow and overly eager to please -- an easy mark, in other words, for a con."

The state Supreme Court, a U.S. District Court, and, most recently, a U.S. Court of Appeals, have all upheld the death sentence. The execution, which will be Virginia's first killing of a woman in almost a century, is set for Sept. 23. She gets to choose between the electric chair or lethal injection.

Perhaps she should choose the latter; Kentucky, Oklahoma, and some other states may have to delay executions due to a shortage of one of the drugs in their lethal cocktails.

Related blog post (with additional links to resources):

September 3, 2010

Metaanalysis debunks psychopathy-violence link

No clear winner among violence risk tools

If you are looking for the best tool to assess someone's risk for violence, the array may seem confusing. Lots of acronyms, lots of statistical data about AUC's (Areas Under the Curve) and the like. What do do?

No worries. As it turns out, they're pretty much interchangeable. That is the bottom-line finding of a groundbreaking metaanalytic study in the APA journal Psychological Bulletin by three academic researchers from the United Kingdom.

The University of Nottingham researchers used sophisticated statistical tools to meta-analyze multiple studies on the accuracy of nine leading violence risk assessment tools. All nine turned out to have similarly moderate predictive accuracy, with none clearly leading the pack. And none -- the scholars warned -- were sufficiently accurate for courts to rely upon them as a primary basis for decision-making in forensic cases requiring "a high level of predictive accuracy, such as preventive detention."

Widely touted PCL-R's "Factor 1" a bust

In a result with potentially momentous implications for forensic practitioners, the researchers found that Factor 1 of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) does not predict violence. As you know, Factor 1 purports to measure the core constellation of a psychopathic personality (superficial charm, manipulativeness, lack of empathy, etc.). When introduced in court, evidence of psychopathy has an enormously prejudicial impact on criminal offenders.

But, the PCL-R's much-ballyhooed ability to predict certain types of violence owes only to the instrument's second factor, according to the metaanalysis by researchers Min Yang, Steve Wong, and Jeremy Coid. And that's no surprise. After all, Factor 2 measures the criminogenic factors (criminality, irresponsibility, impulsivity, history of delinquency, etc.) that even a fifth-grader knows are bad signs for a future of law-abiding citizenship.

In my experience, the Factor 1 items -- the ones purporting to measure an underlying personality profile -- are the ones more likely to be inflated by some evaluators. That's because many of these items are pretty subjective. Glib? Superficially charming? If you don't like a guy -- and/or he doesn't like you -- you are more likely to rate these negative items as present. That's one of my hypotheses for the large evaluator differences and partisan allegiance effects found with the PCL-R in forensic practice.

Cumulatively, the emerging PCL-R findings beg the question:

Why introduce the Psychopathy Checklist in court if other violence risk tools work just as well, without the implicitly prejudicial effect of labeling someone as a "psychopath"?

Psychopathy evidence skyrocketing in juvenile cases

Despite (or perhaps because of, in some cases) its prejudicial impact, the construct of psychopathy is increasingly being introduced in court cases involving juveniles. It is often used to infer that a youth should get a longer sentence because he or she is dangerous and not amenable to treatment.

Skyrocketing use of psychopathy evidence in juvenile cases
Source: Viljoen et al, Psychology, Public Policy, and Law (2010)

The first systematic review, published in the current issue of Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, found the use of psychopathy evidence against juveniles skyrocketing in both Canada and the United States. Psychopathy evidence is typically introduced when juveniles are being sentenced as adults and in sex offender commitment cases. It is also introduced in a variety of other cases, including ones involving disputed confessions, competency to stand trial, and criminal responsibility, report authors Jodi Viljoen, Emily MacDougall, Nathalie Gagnon, and Kevin Douglas.

In one egregious case showing how judges may improperly use evidence of psychopathy, a Canadian judge reasoned that a youth's "psychopathic device [sic] score" showed that under his "shy and unassuming" exterior lurked "a monster" that "at any time ... may well come alive." As a result, the judge sentenced this minor to an adult penitentiary.

Such inferences of unremitting danger and untreatability are improper. A large proportion of youths measured high in psychopathy score lower on psychopathy instruments once they mature. And so-called psychopathic youths are far from untreatable; in one recent study by Michael Caldwell and colleagues, after intensive treatment youths who scored high in psychopathy were actually less likely to recidivate than a comparison group in a juvenile jail.

"[T]he introduction of psychopathy evidence into juvenile forensic contexts has been somewhat rushed and premature at times," the authors conclude.

Have risk prediction tools hit the ceiling?

Researchers have been toiling for almost five decades to perfect risk prediction tools. Unfortunately, they keep running into an insurmountable obstacle: A large proportion of violence is situational. It's affected by environmental context, not just qualities internal to the individual. And not only that, but it is always extremely hard to predict a rare event.

Based on their metaanalytic findings, the UK researchers say maybe it's time to stop searching for the holy grail. Maybe we've reached the ceiling of predictive efficacy.
Violent behavior is the result of the individual interacting with the immediate environment. Although it may be possible to improve on our understanding and predicting what an individual may do in hypothetical situations, it will be much more difficult to predict the situation that an individual actually encounters in the open community. Even predicting violence within an institutional environment is difficult, where the assessor has much more information about that environment.
Instead, they say, it is time to turn our attentions to interventions that can reduce risk:
Building a better model of violence prediction should not be the sole aim of risk prediction research, which is just one link in the risk assessment-prediction-management triad that aims to achieve violence reduction and improved mental health…The risk, need and responsivity principles derived from the theory of the psychology of criminal conduct provide a useful theoretical framework for risk reduction intervention. Appropriate risk assessment can identify high-risk individuals in need of more intensive management and intervention…. Using tools with dynamic risk predictors to assess risk can identify appropriate changeable treatment targets linked to violence.
The studies included in the metaanalysis were from six countries: the United Kingdom (11), Canada (9), Sweden (3), the United States (3), Holland (2), and Germany (1). The instruments included the PCL-R, the PCL:SV, the HCR-20, the VRAG, the OGRS, the RM2000V, the LSI/LSI-R, the GSIR, and the VRS, as well as seven instrument ubscales: PCL-R Factor 1 and Factor 2, the 10-item Historical subscale, the five-item Clinical subscale, and the five-item Risk Management subscale of the HCR-20; and the Static and Dynamic scales of the VRS.

Dr. Wong, former Research Director at the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, studied psychopathy and high-risk offenders for 25 years and developed the Violent Risk Scale and the Violence Risk Scale-sexual offender version before becoming a special professor at the Institute of Mental Health at the University of Nottingham. Dr. Yang is a professor of medical statistics with the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham. And Dr. Coid, Director of the Forensic Psychiatry Research Unit, is principal investigator of the UK Home Office’s Prisoner Cohort Study and also studies the epidemiology of violent and criminal behavior at the population level.

The articles reported on here are: Of related interest: