February 13, 2011

Justice perverted: Sex offense law, psychology and public policy

 Oxford University Press has just released this provocative new title of likely interest to many of my readers. It's written by esteemed forensic psychologist and attorney Charles Patrick Ewing, a law professor at The State University of New York, University at Buffalo Law School.

Over the past quarter century Congress, state legislatures and the courts have radically reshaped America's laws dealing with sex offenders in an effort to reduce the prevalence of sex offenses. Most convicted sex offenders must now register with the authorities, who then make information about them available to the public. Possession of child pornography has been made an extremely serious crime often punishable by prison sentences that dwarf those meted out to child molesters, rapists, robbers, and even killers. Federal law now imposes a minimum sentence of ten years in prison for those convicted of using the internet to attempt to lure minors for sex. And the federal government and 20 states have "sexually violent predator" laws that allow the indefinite civil commitment of convicted sex offenders to secure institutions for treatment after they have served their full criminal sentences.

All of these changes in sex offender law, as well as numerous others, have been based at least in part on input from psychology, psychiatry and the social sciences. Moreover, enforcement and administration of many of these laws relies to a large extent on the efforts of mental health professionals. However, many questions about this involvement remain largely unanswered:
  • Are these laws supported by empirical evidence, or even by well-reasoned psychological theories? Do these laws actually work? 
  • Are mental health professionals capable of reliably determining an offender's future behavior, and how best to manage it? 
  • Are experts capable of providing effective treatment for sex offenders -- i.e., treatment that actually reduces the likelihood that an identified sex offender will re-offend?
Drawing on research from across the social and behavioral sciences, Dr. Ewing weighs the evidence for the spectrum of sex offense laws, to occasionally surprising results. A rational look at an intensely emotional subject, Justice Perverted is an essential book for anyone interested in the science behind public practice.

What others are saying:
Ewing …gives a lucid, objective analysis of the laws, easily separating myth from reality in this intensely emotional area.
-- Philip H. Witt, Ph.D., ABPP, President, American Academy of Forensic Psychology, co-author, Evaluation of Sexually Violent Predators
A remarkable, eye-opener of a book—Professor Ewing brings to this highly controversial subject his knowledge as both a law professor and as a practicing forensic mental health expert.
--Alan M. Goldstein, Ph.D., ABPP, Professor Emeritus, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
This book is a breath of fresh air. It debunks the media-driven frenzy of fear, hate mongering, and utterly irrational laws that do far more harm than good. Professor Ewing writes thoughtfully, carefully, and persuasively. This book should be read by all who care about—and think about—this topic.
 --Michael L. Perlin, Law Professor, Director of International Mental Disability Law Reform Project, New York Law School
 Ewing is a prolific author, and never disappoints. His other recent books, which I have reviewed, include:

1 comment:

flameaway said...

I was incarcerated in a Kansas prison for 13.5 years for rape. I committed this crime and have completed my obligation to the state. Now that I am off parole, I have decided to speak out about problems I have encountered during my time in custody.

There are several disturbing trends which I have noted in a series of articles entitled "Why Rapists Rape" on flameaway.newsvine.com

Of those trends the idea of civil committment and the drive to use questionable testing techniques such as Abel assessments,penile plesomographs, and polygraphs are the most disturbing.

Civil commitment for sexual offenders is currently mostly limited to offenders who target young boys, at least in my state. My main objection to this practice is that officials have done an end run around the double jeopardy restrictions by using civil commitment proceedings. This puts us on a very slippery slope in my view.

Testing procedures that I have listed are attempts to provide a metric by which to judge a person's future thought process.

The Abel assessment is currently being used by corporations to limit their exposure to sexual harrassment cases. This is another very dangerous road to take in my view. Why wouldn't we give this test to school children to determine their status? Once a problme child has been identified, what then? Do we chose to civilly commit children in the interest of public safety?

Polygraph testing and the penile plesmograph are childishly easy to manipulte. They operate on the same principle as does Voodoo. If you believe they will catch you in a lie, the will. Sophisticated offenders recognize this.

These tests are in place to ensure that the offender is truthful about his/her offense history. They indicate a coercive model of therapy that is frankly dangerous in my view. The fact that there seems to be a set of scientific data to determine risk fails when a sophisticated and determined offender games the system. That these types of individuals are the most dangerous types of offenders to release untreated seems to be lost on treatment providers.That fact that coercion was used to try and force them to reveal themselves simply makes many of them angrier and more dangerous.

If a more traditional and proven model of therapy were adopted there is at least a chance that these offenders could integrate the issues that drove them to offend in the first place.

I was very fortunate to have recieved such treatment from two very talented therapists who were not attached to the SOTP programs I attended. I attribute my success and wife and son to these two professionals.

One thing the SOTP program got right in my state was the concentration of the group process. While the model was coercive the group process is an extremely powerful tool that can resolve many difficulties such as alienation,demonization and denial.

However, the restriction that prevents the offender from taking the victim stance ignores the reality that most offenders were victims themselves. Since this can not be processed in group it is most often simply not addressed at all. This is professional negligence in my view. People offend for reasons, if these reasons are not competently address further responsibility for any future offense is shared by the state in my view.

I am currently searching for ways to become an advocate for change and for the mean and women who languish behind walls with treatable problems.

Thank you for your efforts on their behalf.