osprey_archer: (books)
[personal profile] osprey_archer
If you want to despair about something, then Robert A. Forde’s Bad (Forensic) Psychology: How Psychology Left Science Behind is definitely worth a look. This book is an indictment not just of psychology as practiced in the British prison system, but of every comforting lie you ever believed about the predictive abilities of experts (all experts, though Forde is talking specifically about psychologists for most of the book): “it turns out that professionals of all levels of training and experience predict about as well as lay people,” Forde informs us. “There is abundant and increasing evidence that psychologists’ judgments are subject to exactly the same weaknesses as everyone else’s.” His book is a methodical examination of just how weak human judgment often is.

Just look at the clusterfuck that passes for treatment in prisons. One-size-fits-all treatment plans got rolled out on a nationwide scale with little or no prior testing for efficacy, only for it to turn out - when these programs are tested with adequate sample sizes - that these treatments either have no effect on recidivism, or actually make it worse.

And this is what passes for mental health care in prisons. There’s very little attempt to get actual mental healthcare to prisoners with real mental health problems (substance abuse is the big one; Forde also notes that “violence rates amongst those suffering from depression are appreciably higher than in the general population,” although “the vast majority of people with mental disorders do not commit crimes of violence, or any other kind.”). The one-size-fits-all programs are genuinely seen as universally applicable and therefore are supposed to fix the problems underlying substance abuse, which is impulse control, apparently.

(I’m not sure if the proponents of this theory also believe that better impulse control will cure depression, or if depression just doesn’t fit into their understanding of How Crime Works and so they ignore it.)

And then there’s the tragicomedy of the parole board hearing. Did you know that parole boards are more likely to grant parole after lunch than right before? There are studies to this effect. The considered opinion of the parole board is affected just as much by whether the members splurged on a sandwich platter from the deli down the street as by anything in the case files.

In fact, human judgment in general just seems to mess up parole decisions. Statistics have a 70% success rate at predicting recidivism among released criminals. In an attempt to make this prediction more accurate, parole boards often ask prison psychologists for their clinical judgment, which seems reasonable enough - except that “Clinical judgment has long been known to predict reconviction at approximately the chance level, like tossing a coin.”

The question of course arises - if treatment programs (in their current form) and parole hearings are useless, why do they continue? It’s partly inertia - these things have all been set into motion and it’s hard to stop them. In the case of treatment programs, there’s also a profit motive: the people who created the popular treatment programs are making bank, and the people who run them have a vested interest in seeing that they continue to prosper. (This is, I should add, not evidence of a sinister conspiracy, but evidence of the fact that humans are consistently blind to how much our material interests influence our judgment.)

And there’s just the plain fact that we want to do something about crime. Having a parole board seems more proactive than making parole decisions by consulting an actuarial chart of recidivism risks. Treatment programs seem more humane than simply “waiting for prisoners to get older and less impulsive,” as a judge put it to Forde when discussing Forde’s views on parole hearings - even though that’s pretty much what prisons are: holding pens in which people get older and less impulsive until they have probably aged out of their desire to batten on the general public.

Although only probably. We will never be able to predict recidivism rates with 100% accuracy. In fact, 70% seems about as high as it will go, barring some great new statistical discovery. We will have to let go of our hope for a controllable world and accept our own comparative powerlessness.
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