August 28, 2011

Dangerous People: An international discourse

Dangerous People marks an important moment in risk discourse. Leading scholars from around the Western world join together to discuss the problematic science, ethics and morality underlying contemporary approaches to populations deemed high risk. These include not only sex offenders (the focus of this week's New York Times op-ed) but also suspected terrorists, illegal immigrants, violent youth, and the mentally ill.

Not surprisingly, contradictions over risk prediction play out even within the pages of this international and interdisciplinary work. Consider these offerings:
  • Forensic psychologist David Cooke and statistician Christine Michie of Scotland issue their strongest warning yet about the fraud being perpetrated by proponents of “actuarial” risk prediction, whose illusion of scientific certainty camouflages predictions that are highly inaccurate and misleading:
At the heart of the matter is the fact that simple linear models cannot explain complex behavior…. Individuals are violent for different reasons: any one individual may be violent for different reasons on different occasions. This inherent complexity dooms simple-minded statistical prediction.... The only way to deal with this complexity is to think psychologically, not statistically.
  • Lorraine Johnstone, another Scot, warns that the actuarials' inaccuracies are dangerously magnified with juvenile offenders, who present a "moving target" because they are still in the process of developing.
  • Yet, on the other side of the fence, law professor Christopher Slobogin of the USA continues in his vociferous campaign for preventive detention of a litany of groups -- including the mentally ill, enemy combatants, violent juveniles and persons who spread communicable diseases -- based on these very same faulty statistical methods.

Meanwhile, legal scholars Eric Janus and John La Fond continue to shine a spotlight on the United States' costly experiment with civil detention of sex offenders.

Janus's intriguing theory is that the Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) laws are a tool of conservative ideologues to roll back feminist gains in the struggle against sexual violence and gender inequality. He advocates for a return to an empirically guided, public-health approach as the sanest way to combat sexual violence while also safeguarding tax dollars from waste.

"Predictably," agrees La Fond, "the American SVP experiment has been an abysmal and costly failure. Other countries should learn from our terrible mistakes."

Overviews of practices in other Western nations -- including Australia, England and Canada -- suggest that despite this warning, various U.S.-style detention schemes based on remote future risks are gaining traction internationally.

Several chapters in the volume, however, focus on a somewhat different model out of Scotland, the Order for Lifelong Restriction (OLR). This order, rendered at the time of initial sentencing, involves the imposition of an indeterminate sentence to be followed by lifelong supervision. To maximize consistency, risk assessors are accredited by a special Risk Management Authority. Although Scotland abides by the European Convention on Human Rights, which contains a guarantee against arbitrary detention, concerns have been raised about lengthy detention and lifelong sentences for juveniles. Additionally, as the volume editors point out, "it is too early to say whether the Scottish system has been successful in reducing violent and sexual recidivism."

On a somewhat different note, Jennifer Skeem, Jillian Peterson and Eric Silver challenge the widespread assumption that mental illness is a direct cause of criminality in mentally ill offenders. Rather, they say, many mentally ill people may engage in criminal behavior because they are poor, and therefore exposed to contextual risk factors for crime. We should stop regarding mental illness as a master status, they argue, in favor of a more nuanced approach to mentally ill offenders.

Many of the chapters in this timely collection -- edited by Australian legal scholars Bernadette McSherry and Patrick Keyzer -- will no doubt prove prophetic. The current state of fear-based hysteria, like all social movements, will wane in time. Politicians and the public will realize how costly and ineffective are many of the currently cherished practices and will reverse course. As the editors conclude:
What is clear from many of the chapters in this book is that schemes for imprisoning or detaining people for what they might do are costly, likely to contravene international human rights obligations, and have not proven to be effective in reducing crime, particularly sex offences. Detaining more and more people gives rise to the risk that detention regimes will collapse under the weight of numbers.
Yet in the short term, those who most need to hear this collective discourse -- including politicians, judges, prison officials, and even our very own misguided forensic practitioners -- are not listening. Isolated within a like-minded community, they are too busy searching for the magic potion that will make the world safe and appease a frightened public.

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