October 25, 2015

Sex addiction: Science or pop fad?

Thirty-one years ago, when Patrick Carnes walked onto the Phil Donahue television show to promote his new book on sexual compulsivity as an addiction, his notion was – in his own words – “widely perceived as a joke.” 

But Carnes got the last laugh. With the mainstreaming of the addiction industry (eating, gambling, exercising and working are all potential addictions now), Carnes has risen to become guru of a lucrative empire with dozens of rehab centers staffed by thousands of paraprofessionals. Media outlets including Newsweek have uncritically jumped aboard, warning of a grim, pornography-fueled plague afflicting up to 5 percent of the U.S. population.  

With neuroscience all the rage, celebrities including Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods have been recast from mere cads to tragic victims of a progressive and often-fatal “brain disease.” The push for scientific legitimacy reached a zenith in 2013, with an unsuccessful bid to legitimize “hypersexuality” by adding it to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

So, what changed over the course of the last three decades that made the public more receptive to seeing sexual misconduct through the lens of addiction?

In their meticulously researched Sex Addiction: A Critical History, three cultural historians from the University of Auckland in New Zealand trace the rise of this social movement primarily to a politically conservative, sex-negative backlash against the sexual liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. 

One clue to its underlying cultural values, historians Barry Reay, Nina Attwood and Claire Gooder observe, is the movement's enduring strand of homophobia. Even before Carnes's 1983 book Out of the Shadows popularized sexual addiction, the term had been invoked by Lawrence Hatterer, a psychiatrist whose work in the 1950s-1960s focused on curing the “illness” of homosexuality. Heteronormativity remains prominent in the field, with gay men who violate heterosexual norms of sexuality labeled as sex addicts.

Unlike many purported disorders that are promoted by researchers or the pharmaceutical industry, sex addiction is a bottoms-up movement, with people self-diagnosing themselves via self-help books or quick-and-dirty Internet surveys. Its infiltration into popular culture owes in large part to the media’s abdication of its role as scientific gatekeeper, argue the authors of Sex Addiction. As the Columbia Journalism Review also pointed out in a critique of the Newsweek puff piece, “The problem with relying on therapists, as most of the articles over the years have done, rather than qualified experts in academia, is that they have a vested interest in promoting the idea that there’s a widespread problem. The more people believe it, the more money they make."

In contrast to the lay public, academic scholars have remained skeptical of a construct that is too broad and amorphous to have any scientific validity; everything from viewing pornography or having an illicit affair to feeling ashamed about one's sexuality can count toward a diagnosis. Indeed, research studies have found that people’s anxiety over their sexual behavior is tied more to their moral values and level of religiosity than to the actual intensity of their behavior.

It is findings such as these that open sexual addiction up to ridicule. One prominent critic, David Ley, author of The Myth of Sex Addiction, has mocked sexual addiction literature as "valley-girl science" -- a hodge-podge of anecdote and metaphor rather than any provable theory. As he told a Salon interviewer:
“All of these behaviors have been happening for millennium — people cheating, people having lots of sex…. There’s nothing new about this…. For every one of the behaviors they raise as addictive — whether it’s porn, strip clubs, masturbation, infidelity, going to prostitutes — I can present 10,000 people who engage in the exact same behavior and have no problems, and they can’t explain why that is.”
Historically, hysteria over sexual depravity is somewhat cyclical. Way back in the 1870s, a crusade against "smut" by a U.S. Postal Inspector and politician named Anthony Comstock resulted in thousands of arrests and the destruction of 15 tons of books. Interestingly, Comstock's passion for moral purity stemmed from his own personal demons; as a youth, he was said to have masturbated so compulsively that it almost drove him to suicide.

Treating a case of "Madness of the Womb" (1600s)
The pathologizing of female lust has a particularly long tradition, dating back hundreds if not thousands of years. In the late 1600s, women were diagnosed with nymphomania (a diagnosis that still exists in the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases, or ICD), or “madness of the womb," a disease said to be triggered by amorous courtings, lascivious books and dancing. As with today’s sexual addiction, the condition was considered progressive; if not promptly treated it would lead to “true and perfect madness.” Treatment included bleeding, cool baths with lettuce and flowers, marriage to "a lusty young man" or -- no kidding -- rubbing of the afflicted woman's genitals by "a cunning midwife."

Nowadays, as then, there is a common pattern in the way proponents of scientifically questionable new problems attempt to establish their legitimacy. First, they announce discovery of the problem; next, the problem’s lineage is traced back through time to show that it existed all along but was overlooked or neglected. Finally, and most critically, alarmist claims are made about a growing epidemic.

This pattern could be observed in the 2013 campaign to legitimize “hypersexuality” by making it a DSM disorder. For example, the claims-making process included articles by psychiatrist Martin Kafka  tracing hypersexuality’s lineage back to the pioneering sexologists of the 19th century. But in their first-rate scholarship, the Auckland historians scoured those primary sources – the writings of early sexology heavyweights such as Magnus Hirschfeld, Havelock Ellis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Iwan Bloch – and found that their descriptions of the sexually compulsive bore little resemblance to contemporary hypersexuality or sex addiction. Rather, the early sexologists described tortured souls who were both rare and bizarre, typically suffering from more global psychiatric or organic maladies rather than a primary sexual disorder. For example, writing in 1908 about the “sexually insane,” Iwan Bloch described him as resembling a “wild animal” who:
“rush[es] at the first creature he meets … to gratify his lust …. He seizes in sexual embrace any other living or lifeless object, and in this state may perform acts of paederasty, bestiality, violation of children, etc. In these most severe cases we can always demonstrate the existence of mental disorder, general paralysis, mania, or periodical insanity … as a cause.”
Judging from singular descriptions like this, the early hypersexual was an extraordinary creature, a far cry from the mundane individual proposed for the DSM-5. Indeed, the proposed operational definitions for contemporary hypersexuality are striking in their breadth. For example, one diagnostic criteria proposed for the DSM-5 was experiencing seven or more orgasms per week by any method. Based on one survey of the general population in Sweden, this arbitrary cutoff would have pathologized almost half of all men (44%) and more than one out of five women.

Despite official rejection of hypersexuality by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013, the ideology of sexual addiction is gradually seeping into forensic quarters. For example, in some civil detention sites for sex offenders, minimally trained "treatment providers" play the role of moral arbiters, determining what forms of sexual desire are "appropriate" based not on their illegality or potential harm but whether the providers find them "healthy."

To be deemed “healthy” in some such programs, captive patients are required to develop vanilla “masturbation fantasy scripts” that resemble a corny Hallmark card:
"My masturbation fantasy involves Amanda. She is 40* years old, with flowing auburn hair and large green eyes. We enjoy cuddling by the fireplace, taking long walks on the beach in the moonlight, and gazing into each other’s eyes by candlelight."
(*The fantasy object must be the same approximate age as the offender; if she is more than five years younger, he will be told to rewrite his script to make it more "appropriate.")

Despite the enduring popularity of teachers, nurses and -- especially -- librarians as objects of male fantasy, in the burgeoning sexual offender treatment industry, even these cultural tropes may be labeled as "deviant." In one case I was involved in, a man's fantasy of seducing a librarian was advanced as evidence of sexual danger, based on the notion that the library (even after hours) is a public setting.

Of course, this not-so-thinly veiled moralism masquerading as treatment has no empirical support as a method to reduce former sex offenders’ risk to the public. But it does comport with popular cultural notions of addiction and sexual compulsivity, however unproven -- even bizarre -- they may at times be.

* * * * *

Sex Addiction: A Critical History by Barry Reay, Nina Attwood and Claire Gooder is as well written as it is insightful; I highly recommend it. Also recommended is clinical psychologist David Ley’s thoughtful work, The Myth of Sex Addiction.  

October 1, 2015

The mysterious nature of the "juvenile sex offender"

New research casts doubt on practical meaningfulness of emergent category

If you ask John Q. Public about the public safety risk posed by a juvenile who has been arrested for a sex offense, chances are he will estimate too high. The public is woefully uninformed when it comes to risk of sexual reoffense in general, and nowhere is the gap between reality and media-driven anxiety wider than in the case of juvenile sex offenders.

Michael Caldwell, a prominent expert on juvenile delinquency at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, has decided to take the bull by the horns and nail down an accurate risk estimate. His goal is to collect and analyze every single study that exists, whether from peer-reviewed and published research or government studies. So far, he's put together an impressive 88 data sets comprising a whopping 25,716 juvenile sex offenders.*

The data are remarkably consistent: Overall, people who committed a sex offense prior to age 18 have less than a 5% risk of being arrested or convicted for another sex offense as an adult.

Although the average followup period in these 88 studies was more than five years, Caldwell says the length of the followup isn't as critical as you might think. That's because risk is highest in the months immediately following the last offense, and plummets dramatically as time goes on.

That's not surprising, given what we know about adolescent immaturity. Juvenile sex offenders are plagued by raging hormones, poor impulse control, and even poorer judgment. Often, their sex offending is part of a broader pattern of general delinquency that includes behavior like stealing, truancy, fighting, rule-breaking and drug use.

But perhaps more remarkable than their low risk for sexual reoffense as adults is the finding by other researchers that most adult men who are arrested for committing sexual offenses were never part of this juvenile sex offender pool in the first place.

In other words, there's a good chance we are looking at apples and oranges -- that most juveniles who are arrested for a sex offense are just screwed-up kids, rather than budding pedophiles or preferential rapists like some adult offenders.

Are juvenile sex offenders special?

Indeed, many scholars of delinquency are coming to the conclusion that the "juvenile sex offender" – a category that has come into vogue largely due to growing interest in adult sex offending over the past couple of decades – may not actually exist as a distinguishable entity.

That would be very good news from a public safety standpoint, because the majority of young people who get into trouble with the law gradually cease offending and fade into the carpet of the community as they mature and settle down into their adult lives.

Amanda Fanniff, of Palo Alto University's Juvenile Forensic Research Group, is one such scholar. She is testing the uniqueness of juvenile sex offenders by comparing them with other delinquent boys from the federally funded Pathways to Desistance project, a large-scale, multi-site, longitudinal study of serious juvenile offenders in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

So far, Dr. Fanniff has not found much to distinguish the 127 boys with sex offenses from the 1,021 boys with serious non-sexual crime, in terms of measurable things like school problems, parental pathology, antisocial history, or deviant peers. 

If anything, based on followup periods averaging about seven years, the juveniles who offended sexually have lower risk of both general and sexual recidivism than the other delinquents, she reported this week to a meeting of the California Coalition on Sex Offending.**

Consistent with other research, Fanniff found that in sheer numbers, more of the juveniles without a prior sex offense case picked up a sex crime as an adult. Out of the 1,148 boys she tracked, 10 sex offenders and 29 general delinquents were arrested for a sex offense during the average 7-year followup period. Because there were far more general delinquents overall, that translates to a sexual recidivism rate of about 8% for the juvenile sex offenders, and 3% for the other boys, or about 3% overall. (See chart, left. The fact that her juvenile sex offenders recidivated at a slightly higher rate than Caldwell's aggregate average likely owes to the small size of her sample, 127 versus his vast pool of 25,716.)

If the perception of uniqueness is just a projection of the beholder's, says Fanniff, we might do better to focus on treatment programs that are proven to work for delinquents, such as multisystemic therapy that targets family and community variables, rather than focusing too heavily on sex offender-specific treatment with its uneven track record and sometimes-counterproductive methods.  

What this growing body of research evidence tells us, agree Fanniff, Caldwell and other researchers such as Jodi Viljoen at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and her colleagues, is that it is extremely hard to accurately identify a juvenile sex offender who is going to reoffend.

The task is so hard, indeed, that even risk assessment instruments designed specifically for this population – like the ERASOR and the J-SOAP – are doomed to fail most of the time.

But from a purely statistical point of view, prediction is actually a no-brainer:

If you bet that any juvenile sex offender is NOT going to reoffend, you will be correct 95% of the time. It's pretty doggone hard to improve on that good news.

* * * * *

*These new data are not yet published. Dr. Caldwell's 2010 review article in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology found the same pattern, but with only 66 data sets comprising about 11,000 offenders.

**Dr. Fanniff's study has been accepted for publication in the Temple Law Review. In the meantime, you can request information from her via email.

September 14, 2015

As courts censure civil detention practices, is it time for professionals to speak up?

Guest commentary by David S. Prescott, LICSW*

David S. Prescott. Photo by J. Lloyd.
Last week, a federal judge ruled that Missouri's civil commitment program is unconstitutional, the second such court decision in three months. For readers unfamiliar with the US civil commitment laws (AKA “SVP” laws), the short version is that 20 states and the federal government have laws that allow states to indefinitely confine sex offenders who are assessed as having a mental diagnosis that predisposes them to commit future sexual violence. There are controversies at every possible turn in these laws, their processes, and subsequent programs, and the US Supreme Court decisions allowing civil commitment have passed by as little as one vote. Because the author was an expert witness in the Missouri case, this essay looks more at the big-picture issues rather than at that specific case. What seems clear is that there is an evolving consensus in the courts that civil commitment as it is being practiced in many places is unconstitutional and that governments and programs must work together closely to rein in widespread abuses.

As in the Minnesota case decided this June, the Missouri case involved a treatment program in operation for many years (roughly 15 in Missouri’s case and 20 in Minnesota’s) from which few have been released and no one has ever been fully discharged. On one hand it is clear that some people who are civilly committed are truly dangerous; I have worked with men who openly vow to re-offend. On the other hand, no bona fide form of treatment takes a minimum of 15 years to complete. Add to this a political climate that is at best unconducive to genuine rehabilitation, and the die for these court decisions was cast long, long ago.

Prison researcher Grant Duwe
For all of our profession's advances in assessment and treatment, we seem to be producing no improved outcomes whatsoever in the civil commitment arena. A study that has not garnered the amount of discussion that it deserves is Grant Duwe’s research finding that only 28% of a sample of civilly committed offenders would likely have re-offended again in their lifetimes, raising questions as to whether states have cast their nets too wide. In a nation in which “Blackstone’s Formulation” -- "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer" -- is taught in schools as a fundamental principle of justice, the practice of holding thousands of people indefinitely beyond the expiration of their criminal sentences ought to give anyone pause. In fact, the principle behind Blackstone’s Formulation goes back to antiquity. For example, in the Bible, Genesis 18:23-24 quotes Abraham as asking: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?” What are the implications for civil commitment?

Closer to street level, two cases among many made prominent headlines in Minnesota last year. The first was that of a young man who had sexually abused others at an early age. From a media account:

The four court-appointed experts argued that T’s early sexual offenses as a juvenile were influenced by his own sexual victimization, and that his behavior was likely exacerbated by his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and untreated trauma. The experts also noted that most juveniles who act out sexually do not continue to offend as adults. “There is little evidence to suggest that T is a dangerous sexual offender who poses a significant risk to public safety,” the experts wrote.

Another case involved the only woman civilly committed as a sex offender in that state. From a different news report:

B’s case has proven to be even more vexing for the state….[I]t’s clear officials had little idea what to do or how to treat her.… She suffered a traumatic upbringing: abused by her father, brother and two of her uncles starting as early as 5 years old and continuing through young adulthood. She had a child at 14, and as an adult, sexually abused two boys. [One] of the court-appointed experts … characterized B’s offenses as “reactive” to her trauma as a child. As an adult, B is “flirtatious” and “forward” and easily stimulated in discussions of sexual activities. All of which means that treating her in an all-male program, with group therapy sessions, might have actually made things worse.

Despite expert consensus that continued civil confinement was not likely to be helpful in either case, neither T nor B were released. This represents a trend. Similar cases (such as this other juvenile-only offender or this 65-year-old man who reports being shuffled among no less than 24 therapists in more than two decades of commitment) have been reported in the media, and yet the status quo continues.

Missouri's Sex Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment Services (SORTS). 
Photo credit: Jesse Bogan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Clearly, these cases involve people who are difficult to treat. For a sense of scale, though, the woman described above was civilly committed during Bill Clinton’s first year in office, 22 years ago; others have been committed for even longer. One commentator described the lack of outcry as having the same emotional valence as fishermen noting that they sometimes catch dolphins in their tuna nets. At what point is remaining silent about the judicial findings, and the many task force reports and outside evaluations they rest on, no longer acceptable?

Sadly, the people working at the front lines are often directed by policy and supervisors not to openly discuss these issues. In my experience, some people care more deeply than others about balancing the rights and welfare of the community with the principle of beneficence toward clients in treatment. There is no question that there are good people at the front lines trying to do the right thing and wrestling with deeply personal questions about the way forward. Still, given that two exercises of civil commitment statutes have been deemed unconstitutional -- and in the eyes of many that is another way of saying fundamentally un-American -- questions emerge for all practitioners:

At what point do professionals in these settings openly acknowledge to them/ourselves that we are participating in systems that are openly unconstitutional and therefore unlawful according to the standards of much of the Western world? Even beyond American law, consider the case of Shawn Sullivan, who fled the US and was on Interpol’s most-wanted list. One of the UK’s highest courts denied a U.S. extradition request on the basis that Minnesota's program to commit sex offenders indefinitely to treatment violates European human rights law. From the article:

The case of Shawn Sullivan garnered international headlines
Lord Justice Alan Moses said returning Sullivan for trial with the possibility of later being placed in the sex offender system would be a "flagrant denial of his rights" under European law.

With that in mind, professionals might also want to ask at what point we are violating basic human rights when we render "treatment" that no one can ever complete.

Meanwhile, even in states such as Wisconsin, New York and Texas, where some committed sex offenders have successfully completed treatment and been released into the community, the constitutionality of civil commitment is threatened by broad residency restrictions and policies that severely restrict where these residents can live once discharged.

As a profession, we have the research, the tools, and the templates to provide prompt and adequate treatment and to reduce the harm of sexual abuse, and yet we find ourselves in political climates where we cannot use them. At what point do we as individual professionals, or as professional organizations, take a stand against practices that are clearly not working to anyone’s long-term benefit? One need only look at the recent scandal of the American Psychological Association and its involvement with torture to see how collective inaction can ultimately bring disgrace to a profession.

Personally, my belief is that we all need to talk about these issues much more than we do. Legal action and journal articles are one matter, public dialog is something else. Critical self-examination takes courage. Perhaps it starts with all of us when we say to ourselves: All sexual abuse is unacceptable, but I will not violate the rights of others in the name of reducing harm. It is time to take a stand for the rights of all human beings.

*David Prescott is Director of Professional Development for a youth services organization in New England, and is a widely published author and lecturer on sex offender treatment, motivational interviewing, adolescent offenders and related topics. He was an expert witness in the Missouri class action case decided Sept. 11 by U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Fleissig, Van Orden v. Schafer (the full text of which is available HERE). More information is available at his website. An earlier version of this essay appeared at the blogspot of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment.   

September 3, 2015

Adversarial allegiance: Frontier of forensic psychology research

A colleague recently commented on how favorably impressed he was about the open-mindedness of two other forensic examiners, who had had the courage to change their opinions in the face of new evidence. The two had initially recommended that a man be civilly committed as a sexually violent predator, but changed their minds three years later .

My colleague's admiration was short-lived. It evaporated when he realized that the experts’ change of heart had come only after they switched teams: Initially retained by the government, they were now in the employ of the defense.

"Adversarial allegiance" is the name of this well-known phenomenon in which some experts' opinions tend to drift toward the party retaining their services. This bias is insidious because it operates largely outside of conscious awareness, and can affect even ostensibly objective procedures such as the scoring and interpretation of standardized psychological tests.

Partisan bias is nothing new to legal observers, but formal research on its workings is in its infancy. Now, the researchers spearheading the exploration of this intriguing topic have put together a summary review of the empirical evidence they have developed over the course of the past decade. The review, by Daniel Murrie of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia and Marcus Boccaccini of Sam Houston State University, is forthcoming in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science.

Forensic psychologists’ growing reliance on structured assessment instruments gave Murrie and Boccaccini a way to systematically explore partisan bias. Because many forensic assessment tools boast excellent interrater reliability in the laboratory, the team could quantify the degradation of fidelity that occurs in real-world settings. And when scoring trends correlate systematically with which side the evaluator is testifying for, adversarial allegiance is a plausible culprit.

Daniel Murrie
Such bias has been especially pronounced with the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, which is increasingly deployed as a weapon by prosecutors in cases involving future risk, such as capital murder sentencing hearings, juvenile transfer to adult courts, and sexually violent predator commitment trials. In a series of ground-breaking experiments, the Murrie-Boccaccini team found that scores on the PCL-R vary hugely and systematically based on whether an expert is retained by the prosecution or the defense, with the differences often exceeding what is statistically plausible based on chance.

Systematic bias was also found in the scoring of two measures designed to predict future sexual offending, the popular Static-99 and the now-defunct Minnesota Sex Offender Screening Tool Revised (MnSOST-R).

One shortcoming of the team’s initial observational research was that it couldn’t eliminate the possibility that savvy attorneys preselected who were predisposed toward one side or the other. To test this possibility, two years ago the team designed a devious experimental study in which they recruited forensic psychologists and psychiatrists and randomly assigned them to either a prosecution or defense legal unit. To increase validity, the experts were even paid $400 a day for their services.

Marcus Boccaccini
The findings provided proof-positive of the strength of the adversarial allegiance effect. Forensic experts assigned to the bogus prosecution unit gave higher scores on both the PCL-R and the Static-99R than did those assigned to the defense. The pattern was especially pronounced on the PCL-R, due to the subjectivity of many of its items. ("Glibness" and "superficiality," for example, cannot be objectively measured.)

The research brought further bad tidings. Even when experts assign the same score on the relatively simple Static-99R instrument, they often present these scores in such a way as to exaggerate or downplay risk, depending on which side they are on. Specifically, prosecution-retained experts are far more likely to endorse use of "high-risk" norms that significantly elevate risk.

Several somewhat complimentary theories have been advanced to explain why adversarial allegiance occurs. Prominent forensic psychologist Stanley Brodsky has attributed it to the social psychological process of in-group allegiance. Forensic psychologists Tess Neal and Tom Grisso have favored a more cognitive explanation, positing heuristic biases such as the human tendency to favor confirmatory over disconfirmatory information. More cynically, others have attributed partisan bias to conscious machinations in the service of earning more money. Murrie and Boccaccini remain agnostic, saying that all of these factors could play a role, depending upon the evaluator and the situation.   

One glimmer of hope is that the allegiance effect is not universal. The research team found that only some of the forensic experts they studied are swayed by which side retains them. Hopefully, the burgeoning interest in adversarial allegiance will lead to future research exploring not only the individual and situational factors that trigger bias, but also what keeps some experts from shading their opinions toward the retaining party.

Even better would be if the courts took an active interest in this problem of bias. Some Australian courts, for example, have introduced a method called "hot tubs" in which experts for all of the sides must come together and hash out their differences outside of court. 

In the meantime, watch out if someone tries to recruit you at $400 a day to come and work for a newly formed legal unit. It might be another ruse, designed to see how you hold up to adversarial pressure.

* * * * *

The article is: Adversarial Allegiance among Expert Witnesses, forthcoming from The Annual Review of Law and Social Science. To request it from the first author, click HERE

Related blog posts:

June 5, 2015

Recommended summer reading

Among a bumper crop of engaging new books, here are a few that stand out as especially relevant to forensic psychologists interested in popular culture: 

Murder as public spectacle

If you want to understand the nature of murder and its resolution in U.S. inner cities, look no further than L.A. Times reporter Jill Leovy's Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. Leovy embedded herself with detectives in one South Los Angeles precinct to discover the gloomy truth: When the government does not provide strong, centralized justice, people will take the law into their own hands … with tragic results.

Sexual assault, unpunished

With upwards of one in five women raped in their lifetimes, rape is much more common than most people realize, its most frequent victims college-aged women. So, why are so few sexual assaults ever reported to authorities? You will understand why after reading bestselling journalist Jon Krakauer's Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. This superbly researched account traces the ordeals of a cluster of young college women with the audacity to buck the good-old-boys system in search of justice.

A culture of shaming

And finally, what's up with the culture of public shaming that seems to be strangling popular culture, with shame-laced posts regularly going viral on Twitter and other social media sites? Jon Ronson (whom you'll recall from his quirky bestseller, The Psychopath Test) confronts this nasty epidemic in his engaging new book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed

Quick reads.
Cutting-edge topics.

May 3, 2015

Science reporter delves into shadowy realm of civil commitment

Wayne Hicks and Hersey Lelaind. Illustration by Jenny Chang.
"Hersey Lelaind knew he was in trouble -- just not how much trouble. He and a housemate had been on a drive, and Lelaind had been smoking pot. When they returned to their home in Vacaville, California, the sheriff’s department was waiting…. 

"That was in 2006, when Lelaind was 26 years old. He’s been kept under lock and key ever since. His problem wasn’t the drug bust itself. But the bust prompted the authorities to review Lelaind’s checkered past. As a teenager, he had been convicted for sexual abuse against a minor -- and had served his time. 

"That fact, along with other aspects of his criminal and life history, were entered into the 'Static-99,' a little-known but highly influential questionnaire that critics contend is being tragically misused. The test spit out a score that set him on the path to being locked up in a state psychiatric facility. Why? Because he might commit another crime in the future. He doesn’t know if he will ever be released."

So begins an expose on the U.S. civil commitment industry by Peter Aldhous, an award-winning science writer. Writing for Buzzfeed, Aldhous traces the stories of both Hersey Lelaind, an African American man from San Francisco, and Wayne Hicks, a gay man from the Deep South, to illustrate the life-shattering consequences of getting a bad score on a badly flawed actuarial risk instrument.

The dramatically different outcomes for Lelaind and Hicks underscore the hit-or-miss nature of risk assessment, where the difference between freedom and a life behind bars can be something as random as which evaluator is assigned to the case or what risk tool that evaluator chooses to employ.

The featured narratives hold special significance for me, because I was retained as an expert in each case. Hicks was set free after the federal prosecutor read my report, while Lelaind went to trial and was civilly committed -- despite the fact that he is neither a pedophile nor a rapist.

Word on the street is that the Buzzfeed piece, "These 10 Questions Can Mean Life Behind Bars," is getting a lot of, well, buzz. I encourage readers to share it widely. Hopefully, it can help to foster public and professional dialogue on the implicit biases undergirding the civil commitment enterprise.