June 29, 2013

Summer reading, and more

My regrets for the dearth of blog posts as of late. I am feverishly working to prepare all of my upcoming seminars and trainings (while keeping up with forensic case work!). I hope to see some of you next month, either in Honolulu (at my APA workshop) or at Bond University in Queensland, where I will be hosting seminars and a forensic training. I hope to bring you blog posts about these and other experiences, as time allows. In the meantime, here are a few snippets and recommendations for summer reading:

High Price: A neuroscientist’s journey of self-discovery that challenges everything you know about drugs and society 

You have probably heard of the rat studies in which rats -- allowed to press a lever to get either drugs or food -- will repeatedly choose drugs, thereby starving themselves. What you may not know is that those rats are locked in little cages all by themselves, with no friends or partners and nothing to do. Give them a pleasant life -- buddies to pal around with, cuties to hook up with, and games to play -- and they don't get strung out. It would be like running a drug study on prisoners in solitary confinement, and then claiming that your results generalize to the free world.

This is one of the more illuminating examples in Harvard psychology professor Carl Hart's new page-turner, High Price. Hart's goal is to show that current U.S. drug policy is more about racism than brain science. Unusually, his vehicle for this message is a memoir rather than an academic text. It's a courageous memoir, in which he describes his own background and upbringing in a rough section of Miami, Florida. The book is weighted more toward autobiography than the scientific research, but is quite intriguing nonetheless, illuminating the chance factors that shape our lives, and the destructive impact of drug laws on African American communities in particular.

Hart also describes studies by him and his colleagues at Columbia, in which they recruited cocaine and methamphetamine addicts to live in a lab for a couple of weeks, and get paid to take high-quality drugs. Not a bad deal. Again contrary to the dominant messages about zombie drug fiends (think of those fried-egg ads about "your brain on drugs"), the addicts made quite rational choices about whether and when to take drugs, thereby highlighting the potential for rehabilitation.

My Amazon review is HERE; video interviews with the author can be viewed HERE.

The other Wes Moore: One name, two fates

Speaking of the chance factors in life (and also drugs, race and memoirs), I have just been listening to the audio version of a fascinating book about two young Black men with the same name and similar backgrounds, both with ties to the same troubled section of drug-plagued Baltimore (think The Wire). One grew up to become a Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran, White House Fellow and business leader, while the other ended up a convicted murderer serving a life sentence for a botched jewelry-store robbery.

"The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his," Moore writes.

Moore alternates the voices to narrate the stories of both men and, by extension, "a generation of boys trying to find their way in a hostile world."

The book is HERE

Don't trust your memory: New study on Dutch soldiers in Afghanistan

It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out.

(No, wait. Wrong lead. That was the one we used to play in the newsroom on boring days. We would each start a story with the dark-and-stormy-night lead, and go from there. Let me start again.)

It was New Year's Eve during your deployment in Afghanistan. Suddenly, a missile exploded. Gravel flew. Only through sheer luck was no one injured.

Surreptitiously fed information about this fictional event and then asked about it seven months later, about one out of every four Dutch soldiers in a larger study on PTSD falsely recalled experiencing the missile attack. Individuals with lower intelligence and those who experienced high arousal and more stressors on deployment were more vulnerable to believing misinformation.

It’s yet one more study in a growing body of data suggesting that we should take what people say with an enormous grain of salt -- especially in the contexts in which we forensic professionals often work, involving high-stress events and subjects with cognitive vulnerabilities.

The article, from the European Journal of Psychotraumatology, is available online (without a subscription) HERE.

Dark period in U.S. history: Widespread abuse of mentally ill prisoners documented

It has been an extraordinary three weeks in the history of the American penal system, perhaps one of the darkest periods on record. In four states, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, the systemic abuse and neglect of inmates, and especially mentally ill inmates, has been investigated, chronicled and disclosed in grim detail to the world by lawyers, government investigators and one federal judge. The conclusions are inescapable: In our zeal to dehumanize criminals we have allowed our prisons to become medieval places of unspeakable cruelty so far beyond constitutional norms that they are barely recognizable.

So begins a hard-hitting expose in the Atlantic regarding the U.S. government's refusal to investigate allegations of "grotesque abuses" of mentally ill prisoners in federal penitentiaries, in the wake of similar exposes of conditions in state and local lockups.

The informative article continues HERE.

June 13, 2013

International violence risk researchers launch free news service

I don't know about you, but I find it incredibly hard to keep up with the burgeoning research in risk assessment. In this era of international fear and carceral control, disciplines from psychology to criminology to nursing to juvenile justice are cranking out more articles each month, and the deluge can feel overwhelming.

Fortunately, two prominent researchers are offering to help us stay organized and up to speed -- for free. The newly created Alliance for International Risk Research (AIRR) will send out a monthly email containing references to all new articles related to forensic risk assessment from over 80 scholarly journals. And all you have to do is sign up.

Jay Singh and Kevin Douglas, AIRR Editors-in-Chief
The AIRR is brought to you by Jay Singh and Kevin Douglas. Dr. Singh, a newly appointed professor and senior researcher for the Department of Justice in Switzerland, is one of the best and brightest around (I've featured his important research on violence risk assessment more than once on this blog); Dr. Douglas is an award-winning psychology professor at Simon Fraser University and co-author of the widely used HCR-20 violence risk assessment tool, among others. 

Their goal is to keep clinicians, policymakers, and researchers up to date in this rapidly evolving field, thus promoting evidence-based practices in the mental health and criminal justice systems. For articles published in languages other than English, the AIRR even boasts an "international coordinator" who will help disseminate the research to a global audience.

Signing up is easy: Just go to THIS LINK and provide your email contract information. The AIRR promises not to bother you with solicitations, survey participation requests or conference announcements -- "simply the latest risk-related research at your fingertips."

Don't delay! The first AIRR bulletin will be arriving in inboxes on Sept. 1.

June 4, 2013

Newspaper unfairly maligned forensic psychologist, news council holds

In an unprecedented case, a Washington news council has determined that the Seattle Times was inaccurate and unfair to a forensic psychologist targeted in an investigative series on the state's sexually violent predator program.

Reporter Christine Willmsen went too far in her four-part investigative series on the costs of implementing SVP laws by singling out psychologist Richard Wollert for public censure. Relying on prosecution sources, she portrayed Wollert as a defense hack who promulgated unorthodox theories in order to line his own pockets, quoting detractors who called him an "outlier" and "a symphony with one note" who spoke "mumbo jumbo."

During Saturday's three-hour hearing, Wollert testified that the Times series had "tainted the Washington jury pool" by implying that psychologists who testified for the defense were not credible, and damaged his professional reputation. He said his annual income plummeted from about $450,000 to between $175,000 and $200,000 in the wake of the January 2012 series. 

Click on the video to watch the three-hour hearing. Then vote (HERE).

By a 7-to-2 vote, the Washington News Council found that the Times did not make sufficient efforts to contact sources other than prosecutors. On the larger question of whether the "Price of Protection" series was "accurate, fair, complete and balanced" in its portrayal of Wollert, the council sided with Wollert by a narrower, 6-to-4 margin. The council was evenly split on whether the headline of the first article in the series, "State Wastes Millions Helping Sex Predators Avoid Lock-up," was "accurate and fair." The votes by the ombudsman body, after a public hearing live-streamed from Seattle Town Hall, have no legal authority. The Times refused to attend what it labeled a "quasi-judicial spectacle," objecting to the council's "assumed authority." 

Accuracy, fairness and journalistic ethics

This is the second investigative series by Times reporter Willmsen to raise protests; in 2004, a local school board challenged the fairness of a series on "Coaches Who Prey." The SVP series illustrates how what passes for investigative journalism these days is often just piling on against the underdog. Reflective of the corporate monopolization of daily media, it bears little resemblance to the muckraking spirit that dominated when I was in journalism school, in the heady afterglow of Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate expose.  

Web page of the Seattle Times series
The basic premise of this series was certainly newsworthy: That Washington’s SVP law-- the first in the United States -- created "a cottage industry of forensic psychologists" who are gorging themselves at the public troughs. (That's a theme of this blog as well.) But by relying almost exclusively on prosecution sources, Willmsen became nothing more than a mouthpiece for government efforts to discredit and silence experts who present judges and juries with information that they don't like.

The case raises important distinctions among accuracy, balance and fairness in journalism. Journalists' voluntary code of ethics calls for accuracy, fairness and honesty in reporting and interpreting information. Balance, on the other hand, is not always desirable. As the Times noted in its rebuttal letter to the news council, "The pursuit of balance resulted in years of articles and broadcasts that gave the 1 percent of scientists who were climate-change deniers the same weight as the 99 percent who were certain that human activities were having an adverse impact on global climate."

Yet in this case, Willmsen's embeddedness with prosecutors resulted in such a profound lack of balance that the series was blatantly biased, and crossed the line from news reporting into advocacy. Consider Willmsen's one-sidedness in reporting on three of her major themes:


Richard Wollert testifying (from Seattle Times video)
The main theme of the series was that defense-retained experts were gouging the state. Willmsen wrote that Wollert made more than $100,000 on one SVP case; in a video from the series, Wollert is shown testifying that he earned $1.2 million from sexually violent predator cases in Washington and other states over a two-year period. That's a big chunk of taxpayer money, and the revelation undoubtedly caused public outrage against defense attorneys and their experts.

Willmsen wrote that government experts were not paid that much. However, this is demonstrably false. During the period that Willmsen was collecting data for the series, a California psychiatrist who is popular with Washington prosecutors was charging $450 per hour (the average among forensic psychologists being about half that) and -- like Wollert -- had billed more than $100,000 in a single case. His name does not show up anywhere in the series.

Following publication of the series, Washington capped the fees of defense-retained SVP experts at $10,000 for evaluations, a fee that includes all travel expenses, and $6,000 for testifying (including preparation time, travel, and deposition testimony). The fees of prosecution-retained experts were not capped.

Boilerplate reports:

In the video, Willmsen targets defense-retained expert Ted Donaldson for writing boilerplate reports in which the names were changed, but the text remained virtually the same.

Boilerplate reports are indeed a travesty. Especially when someone is facing potentially lifelong detention for a crime that is only a future possibility, experts should present a keen understanding of what makes that specific individual tick. But, having reviewed dozens of reports in Washington SVP cases, I can attest to the fact that government hacks are at least as guilty of this sin. In fact, one of the most popular of prosecution-retained experts in Washington is infamous for writing novel-length boilerplate reports. In two recent cases that I am aware of, he even forgot to excise the name of the previous individual. So, one will be reading along in his report on Mr. Smith, and suddenly come across big chunks of material describing Mr. Jones.

Faulty science:

In her reporting, Willmsen lambasted an actuarial tool developed by Wollert, the MATS-1, as being illegitimate. The idea behind the MATS-1 is to fully account for the reduction in risk that occurs as offenders age. The reporter quoted Karl Hanson, a Canadian researcher who is unhappy with Wollert because Wollert modified his popular Static-99 tool to create the MATS-1. But a fair and unbiased report would not rely for the unvarnished truth on a source who is essentially a business rival. In truth, as I've blogged about myriad times, there are plenty of grounds to critique the methodology and accuracy of any actuarial technique. In contrast to her disdain for the newer MATS-1, Willmsen lauds the Static-99 as the most widely used actuarial tool for assessing sex offender risk. But just because McDonald's sells way more burgers than In and Out Burgers does not mean their beef is any purer. 

As Wollert told the council members, "When we're talking about the advancement of science, people have different ideas"; one test of good research is whether "it's accepted over time." By that standard, Wollert's theories are doing pretty well. His published thesis that actuarial tools overestimated risk among elderly offenders was once controversial but is now widely accepted. Similarly, he was one of the first to publish criticism of the predictive abilities of the MnSOST-R actuarial tool; recently, that instrument was pulled from use because of its inaccuracy in predicting sex offender recidivism. And Wollert was emphasizing Bayesian reasoning -- most recently popularized by Nate Silver in The Signal and the Noise -- before many in our field realized how essential it was. 

While it is certainly laudable for the press to investigate bloated fees and the waste of taxpayer money, by laying all blame on the defense, the Times likely prejudiced the jury pool and squelched zealous representation by defense attorneys, who in terms of both resources and legal clout are like David battling the state’s mighty Goliath. Instead of proffering Wollert as a whipping boy, then, an impartial investigation would have uncovered exemplars of problematic practices on both sides of the legal aisle.

A true muckracking journalist would have dug even further, to ask:
  • How did opportunist politicians bamboozle the public into enacting costly laws that do little to protect the public, while simultaneously distracting from more fruitful efforts at reducing sexual violence? 
  • How has the SVP laws' legal requirement of a mental disorder expanded the influence of forensic psychology, with battles of the experts over sham diagnoses boosting the fortunes of shrewd practitioners, many of whom were toiling away as lowly prison and hospital hacks prior to these laws?  

Talking to the press

During their public deliberations, several council members chastised Wollert for declining Willmsen's repeated requests for an interview. Wollert said that the reporter had been rude and exuded bias when she approached him. But the panelists said Wollert had no legitimate expectation of deference or politeness.

"You cut your own throat," said John Knowlton, a council member and journalism professor at Green River Community College.

But must a source submit to an interview, even if he knows that it is a trap, and that his words will be twisted and used against him? This is a dodgy question. While many journalists are conscientious and above-board, others are not. Recall Janet Malcolm's provocative opening words in The Journalist and the Murderer, examining the ethics and morality of journalism in connection with journalist Joseph McGuiness's betrayal of murder suspect Jeffrey MacDonald in Fatal Vision:
"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns -- when the article or book appears -- his hard lesson."
Perhaps Wollert could have adequately protected himself by asking the reporter to submit her questions in advance, and by responding in writing, via email. But who knows?

His decision to trust his instincts may have come back to bite him. Then again, he might have been bit even worse had he let down his guard with an agenda-driven journalist who had him in her crosshairs.