Friday, 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.

Next up: Recent scholarly articles of import

Sunday, 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.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Static-99: Yet more bumps on a rocky developmental path

Last December, psychologist Brian Abbott and I produced a table to illustrate the mercurial nature of the Static-99 risk assessment tool for sex offenders. No sooner had we published our table chronicling the tool's shifting nature over time, than the developers announced yet more changes. Here, we are re-posting our original table, with an update as of January 2015. 

* * * * *
By Brian Abbott, PhD and Karen Franklin, PhD* 

The Static-99 is the most widely used instrument for assessing sex offenders’ future risk to the public. Indeed, some state governments and other agencies even mandate its use. But bureaucratic faith may be misplaced. Conventional psychological tests go through a standard process of development, beginning with the generation and refinement of items and proceeding through set stages that include pilot testing and replication, leading finally to peer review and formal publication. The trajectory of the Static-99 has been more haphazard: Since its debut 15 years ago, the tool has been in a near-constant state of flux. Myriad changes in items, instructions, norms and real-world patterns of use have cast a shadow over its scientific validity. Here, we chart the unorthodox developmental course of this tremendously popular tool.  
Static-99 and 99R Developmental Timeline
The first Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) law passes in the United States, in Washington. A wave of similar laws begins to sweep the nation.
The US Supreme Court upholds the Constitutionality of preventive detention of sex offenders. 
R. Karl Hanson, a psychologist working for the Canadian prison system, releases a four-item tool to assess sex offender risk. The Rapid Risk Assessment for Sex Offence Recidivism (RRASOR) uses data from six settings in Canada and one in California.[1]
Psychologists David Thornton and Don Grubin of the UK prison system release a similar instrument, the Structured Anchored Clinical Judgment (SACJ- Min) scale.[2]
Hanson and Thornton combine the RRASOR and SACJ-Min to produce the Static-99, which is accompanied by a three-page list of coding rules.[3] The instrument's original validity data derive from four groups of sex offenders, including three from Canada and one from the UK (and none from the United States). The new instrument is atheoretical, with scores interpreted based on the recidivism patterns among these 1,208 offenders, most of them released from prison in the 1970s.
Hanson and Thornton publish a peer-reviewed article on the new instrument.[4]
New coding rules are released for the Static-99, in an 84-page, unpublished booklet that is not peer reviewed.[5] The complex and sometimes counterintuitive rules may lead to problems with scoring consistency, although research generally shows the instrument can be scored reliably.
The developers release a new instrument, the Static-2002, intended to "address some of the weaknesses of Static-99."[6] The new instrument is designed to be more logical and easier to score; one item from the Static-99 – pertaining to whether the subject had lived with a lover for at least two years – was dropped due to issues with its reliability and validity. Despite its advantages, Static-2002 never caught on, and did not achieve the popularity of the Static-99 in forensic settings. 
Leslie Helmus, A graduate student working with Karl Hanson, reports that contemporary samples of sex offenders have much lower offense rates than did the antiquated, non-US samples upon which the Static-99 was originally developed, both in terms of base rates of offending and rates of recidivism after release from custody.[7]
September 2008
Helmus releases a revised actuarial table for Static-99, to which evaluators may compare the total scores of their subjects to corresponding estimates of risk.[8] Another Static-99 developer, Amy Phenix, releases the first of several "Evaluators’ Handbooks."[9]
October 2008
At an annual convention of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA), Andrew Harris, a Canadian colleague of Hanson's, releases a new version of the Static-99 with  three separate "reference groups" (Complete, CSC and High Risk) to which subjects can be compared. Evaluators are instructed to report a range of risks for recidivism, with the lower bound coming from a set of Canadian prison cases (the so-called CSC, or Correctional Service of Canada group), and the upper bound derived from a so-called "high-risk" group of offenders. The risk of the third, or "Complete," group was hypothesized as falling somewhere between those of the other two groups.[10]
November 2008
At a workshop sponsored by a civil commitment center in Minnesota, Thornton and a government evaluator named Dennis Doren propose yet another new method of selecting among the new reference groups.  In a procedure called "cohort matching,” they suggest comparing an offender with either the CSC or High-Risk reference group based on how well the subject matched a list of external characteristics they had created but never empirically tested or validated.[11]
December 2008
Phenix and California psychologist Dale Arnold put forth yet a new idea for improving the accuracy of the Static-99: After reporting the range of risk based on a combination of the CSC and High-Risk reference groups, evaluators are encouraged to consider a set of external factors, such as whether the offender had dropped out of treatment and the offender's score on Robert Hare's controversial Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). This new method does not seem to catch on.[12] [13]
An official Static-99 website,, debuts.[14]
Winter 2009
The Static-99 developers admit that norms they developed in 2000 are not being replicated: The same score on the Static-99 equates with wide variations in recidivism rates depending on the sample to which it is compared. They theorize that the problem is due to large reductions in Canadian and U.S. recidivism rates since the 1970s-1980s. They call for the development of new norms.[15]
September 2009
Hanson and colleagues roll out a new version of the Static-99, the Static-99R.[16] The new instrument addresses a major criticism by more precisely considering an offender's age at release, an essential factor in reoffense risk.  The old Static-99 norms are deemed obsolete. They are replaced by data from 23 samples collected by Helmus for her unpublished Master's thesis. The samples vary widely in regard to risk. For estimating risk, the developers now recommend use of the cohort matching procedure to select among four new reference group options. They also introduce the concepts of percentile ranks and relative risk ratios, along with a new Evaluators’ Workbook for Static-99R and Static-2002R. Instructions for selecting reference groups other than routine corrections are confusing and speculative. Research is lacking to demonstrate that selecting other than routine corrections reference group produces more accurate risk estimates.[17]
November 2009
Just two months after their introduction, the Evaluators’ Workbook for Static-99R and Static-2002R is withdrawn due to errors in its actuarial tables.[18] The replacement workbook provides the same confusing and speculative method for selecting a nonroutine reference group, a method that lacks scientific validation and reliability.
An international team of researchers presents large-scale data from the United States, New Zealand and Australia indicating that the Static-99 would be more accurate if it took better account of an offender's age.[19] The Static-99 developers do not immediately embrace these researchers' suggestions.
January 2012
Amy Phenix and colleagues introduce a revised Evaluators’ Workbook for Static-99R and Static-2002R.[20] The new manual makes a number of revisions both to the underlying data (including percentile rank and relative risk ratio data) and to the recommended procedure for selecting a reference group. Now, in an increasingly complex procedure, offenders are to be compared to one of three reference groups, based on how many external risk factors they had. The groups included Routine Corrections (low risk), Preselected Treatment Need (moderate risk), and Preselected High Risk Need (high risk). Subsequent research shows that using density of external risk factors to select among the three reference group options is not valid and has no proven reliability.[21]A fourth reference group, Nonroutine Corrections, may be selected using a separate cohort-matching procedure. New research indicates that evaluators who are retained most often by the prosecution are more likely than others to select the high-risk reference group, [22]  which has base rates much higher than in contemporary sexual recidivism studies and will thus produce exaggerated risk estimates.[23]    
July 2012
Six months later, the percentile ranks and relative risk ratios are once again modified, with the issuance of the third edition of the Static-99R and Static-2002R Evaluators’ Handbook.[24] No additional data is provided to justify that the selection of nonroutine reference groups produces more accurate risk estimates than choosing the routine corrections reference group.
October 2012
In an article published in Criminal Justice & Behavior, the developers concede that risk estimates for the 23 offender samples undergirding the Static-99 vary widely. Further, absolute risk levels for typical sex offenders are far lower than previously reported, with the typical sex offender having about a 7% chance of committing a new sex offense within five years. They theorize that the Static-99 might be inflating risk of reoffense due to the fact that the offenders in its underlying samples tended to be higher risk than average.[25]
The repeated refusal of the Static-99 developers to share their underlying data with other researchers, so that its accuracy can be verified, leads to a court order excluding use of the instrument in a Wisconsin case.[26]
October 2013
At an annual ATSA convention, Hanson and Phenix report that an entirely new reference group selection system will be released in a peer-reviewed article in Spring 2014.[27] The new system will include only two reference groups: Routine Corrections and Preselected High Risk High Need.  An atypical sample of offenders from a state hospital in Bridgewater, Massachusetts dating back to 1958 is to be removed altogether, along with some other samples, while some new data sets are to be added.
October 2014
At the annual ATSA convention, the developers once again announce that the anticipated rollout of the new system has been pushed back pending acceptance of the manuscript for publication. Helmus nonetheless presents an overview.[28] She reports that the new system will abandon two out of the current four reference groups, retaining only Routine Corrections and Preselected High Risk Need.   Evaluators should now use the Routine Corrections norms as the default unless local norms (with a minimum of 100 recidivists) are available. Evaluators will be permitted to choose the Preselected High Risk Need norms based on “strong, case-specific justification.” No specific guidance nor empirical evidence to support such a procedure is proffered. A number of other new options for reporting risk information are also presented, including the idea of combining Static-99 data with that from newly developed, so-called "dynamic risk instruments."   
January 2015
At an ATSA convention presentation followed by an article in the journal Sexual Abuse,[29] the developers announce further changes in their data sets and how Static-99R scores should be interpreted. Only two of the original four "reference groups" are still standing. Of these, the Routine group has grown by 80% (to 4,325 subjects), while the High-Risk group has shrunk by 35%, to a paltry 860 individuals. Absent from the article is any actuarial table on the High-Risk group, meaning the controversial practice by some government evaluators of inflating risk estimates by comparing sex offenders' Static-99R scores with the High-Risk group data has still not passed any formal peer review process. The developers also correct a previous statistical method as recommended by Ted Donaldson and colleagues back in 2012,[30] the effect of which is to further lower risk estimates in the high-risk group. Only sex offenders in the Routine group with Static-99R scores of 10 are now statistically more likely than not to reoffend. It is unknown how many sex offenders were civilly committed in part due to reliance on the now-obsolete data.


[1] Hanson, R. K. (1997). The development of a brief actuarial risk scale for sexual offense recidivism. (Unpublished report 97-04). Ottawa: Department of the Solicitor General of Canada.
[2] Grubin, D. (1998). Sex offending against children: Understanding the risk. Unpublished report, Police Research Series Paper 99. London: Home Office.
[3] Hanson, R.K. & Thornton, D. (1999).  Static 99: Improving Actuarial Risk Assessments for Sex Offenders. Unpublished paper
[4] Hanson, R. K., & Thornton, D. (2000). Improving risk assessments for sex offenders: A comparison of three actuarial scales. Law and Human Behavior, 24(1), 119-136.
[5] Harris, A. J. R., Phenix, A., Hanson, R. K., & Thornton, D. (2003). Static-99 coding rules: Revised 2003. Ottawa, ON: Solicitor General Canada.
[6] Hanson, R.K., Helmus, L., & Thornton, D (2010). Predicting recidivism amongst sexual offenders: A multi-site study of Static-2002. Law & Human Behavior 34, 198-211.
[7] Helmus, L. (2007). A multi-site comparison of the validity and utility of the Static-99 and Static-2002 for risk assessment with sexual offenders. Unpublished Honour’s thesis, Carleton University, Ottawa, ON, Canada.
[8] Helmus, L. (2008, September). Static-99 Recidivism Percentages by Risk Level. Last Updated September 25, 2008. Unpublished paper.
[9] Phenix, A., Helmus, L., & Hanson, R.K. (2008, September). Evaluators’ Workbook. Unpublished, September 28, 2008
[10] Harris, A. J. R., Hanson, K., & Helmus, L. (2008). Are new norms needed for Static-99? Workshop presented at the ATSA 27th Annual Research and Treatment Conference on October 23, 2008, Atlanta: GA. Available at
[11] Doren, D., & Thornton, D. (2008). New Norms for Static-99: A Briefing. A workshop sponsored by Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center on November 10, 2008. Madison, WI.
[12] Phenix, A. & Arnold, D. (2008, December). Proposed Considerations for Conducting Sex Offender Risk Assessment Draft 12-14-08. Unpublished paper.
[13] Abbott, B. (2009). Applicability of the new Static-99 experience tables in sexually violent predator risk assessments. Sexual Offender Treatment, 1, 1-24.
[14] Helmus, L., Hanson, R. K., & Thornton, D. (2009). Reporting Static-99 in light of new research on recidivism norms. The Forum, 21(1), Winter 2009, 38-45.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Hanson, R. K., Phenix, A., & Helmus, L. (2009, September). Static-99(R) and Static-2002(R): How to Interpret and Report in Light of Recent Research. Paper presented at the 28th Annual Research and Treatment Conference of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, Dallas, TX, September 28, 2009.
[17] DeClue, G. & Zavodny, D. (2014). Forensic use of the Static-99R: Part 4. Risk Communication. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 1(3), 145-161.
[18] Phenix, A., Helmus, L., & Hanson, R.K. (2009, November). Evaluators’ Workbook. Unpublished, November 3, 2009.
[19] Wollert, R., Cramer, E., Waggoner, J., Skelton, A., & Vess, J. (2010). Recent Research (N = 9,305) Underscores the Importance of Using Age-Stratified Actuarial Tables in Sex Offender Risk Assessments. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 22 (4), 471-490. See also: "Age tables improve sex offender risk estimates," In the News blog, Dec. 1, 2010.
[20] Phenix, A., Helmus, L., & Hanson, R.K. (2012, January). Evaluators’ Workbook. Unpublished, January 9, 2012.
[21] Abbott, B.R. (2013). The Utility of Assessing “External Risk Factors” When Selecting Static-99R Reference Groups. Open Access Journal of Forensic Psychology, 5, 89-118.
[22] Chevalier, C., Boccaccini, M. T., Murrie, D. C. & Varela, J. G. (2014), Static-99R Reporting Practices in Sexually Violent Predator Cases: Does Norm Selection Reflect  Adversarial Allegiance? Law & Human Behavior. To request a copy from the author, click HERE.
[23] Abbott (2013) op. cit.
[24] Phenix, A., Helmus, L., & Hanson, R.K. (2012, July). Evaluators’ Workbook. Unpublished, July 26, 2012.
[25] Helmus, Hanson, Thornton, Babchishin, & Harris (2012), Absolute recidivism rates predicted by Static-99R and Static-2002R sex offender risk assessment tools vary across samples: A meta-analysis, Criminal Justice & Behavior. See also: "Static-99R risk estimates wildly unstable, developers admit," In the News blog, Oct. 18, 2012.
[27] Hanson, R.K. & Phenix, A. (2013, October). Report writing for the Static-99R and Static-2002R. Preconference seminar presented at the 32nd Annual Research and Treatment Conference of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, Chicago, IL, October 30, 2013. See also: "Static-99 'norms du jour' get yet another makeover," In the News blog, Nov. 17, 2013.
[28] Helmus, L.M. (2014, October). Absolute recidivism estimates for Static-99R and Static-2002R: Current research and recommendations. Paper presented at the 33rd Annual Research and Treatment Conference of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, San Diego, CA, October 30, 2014.
Hanson, R. K., Thornton, D., Helmus, L-M, & Babchishin, K. (2015). What sexual recidivism rates are associated with Static-99R and Static-2002R scores? Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 1-35.
Donaldson, T., Abbott, B., & Michie,  C. (2012). Problems with the Static-99R prediction estimates and confidence intervals. Open Access Journal of Forensic Psychology, 4,

* * * * *

*Many thanks to Marcus Boccaccini, Gregory DeClue, Daniel Murrie and other knowledgeable colleagues for their valuable feedback.  

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Related blog posts:
·        Static-99 "norms du jour" get yet another makeover (Nov. 17, 2013)
·        Age tables improve sex offender risk estimates (Dec. 1, 2010)
·        New study: Do popular actuarials work? (April 20, 2010)
·        Delusional campaign for a world without risk (April 3, 2010)

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