Monday, 28 September 2009

Risk and release

Daniel Sonnex, who had been released on parole licence after a conviction for a violent robbery, killed two French students last year after torturing them to obtain their pin numbers. The case illustrated the tragic consequences of failures in the system to monitor and assess an offender when s/he has been released. How, though, does the criminal justice system assess the risk of prisoners convicted of serious crimes reoffending if released? This was the question the lawyers, psychiatrists and psychologists grappled with at last week's Association of Prison Lawyers conference.

All agreed that the psychological testing methods developed for identifying whether a prisoner is likely to reoffend if released could never be guaranteed. What the psychiatrists and psychologists did seem reasonably confident about was their success in identifying risk factors that made reoffending more likely in certain groups of prisoners. For sex offenders these included the number of previous sexual convictions, age and whether they had never had an intimate relationship. Actuarial calculations can be made from such factors and these can be extrapolated to a group, but they cannot be used directly to predict an individual's behaviour.

Polygraph or lie detectors are being trialled to assess the truth of an offender’s assertions regarding his/her rehabilitation, but opinion on the reliability of these seemed mixed among the experts at the conference. Psychological tests remain the main tool for assessing individual prisoners’ rehabilitation. Factors such as personality, attitudes and emotional control are assessed. The tests need to be applied correctly and are dependent on well-trained and qualified people to do this.

A question submitted in writing from a prisoner asked why he was always seen by a trainee when he was undergoing a psychological assessment. All the participants on the panel the question was put to agreed that there is a shortage of fully qualified forensic psychologists who carry out the assessments in prisons. Opinion was divided, though, on whether the trainees who are widely used are competent to undertake the work. The representative from the Ministry of Justice argued that most trainees do have the experience and skills to do this work, with their trainee status being attributable to changes in qualification requirements. The independent experts were less convinced and one argued that many were not sufficiently skilled and that 'their supervision was sporadic'.

A sceptical lawyer in the audience questioned if the methods used to assess prisoners’ likelihood of reoffending were too subjective. Another lawyer argued that one client had had two results in a test - one finding a medium risk and one finding a high risk. In reply the psychologists said that as long as the tests were applied correctly they were reliable and that the tests and clinical assessments still allowed room for professional judgments. Other than never releasing any prisoner convicted of a serious crime there seems little alternative to the current system, but the system needs to be properly resourced to optimise the chances of reaching the correct decisions, as the consequences of not doing so can be tragic.

See LAG's new book: Prisoners: law and practice by Simon Creighton and Hamish Arnott.

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