Thursday, October 26, 2017

pretend science and the power of the government

The power of government matched with the authority of unethical experts can do unimaginable damage.

The Motherisk Drug Testing Lab at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto was used for over twenty years to do hair analysis on people suspected of illegal drug use.
For more than two decades, Motherisk performed flawed drug and alcohol testing on thousands of vulnerable families across Canada, influencing decisions in child protection cases that separated parents from their children and sometimes children from their siblings. 
Child welfare agencies in five provinces across Canada had paid for Motherisk's hair-strand tests, believing they were scientific proof of substance abuse. The tests were often used in custody and child protection cases in part to decide whether a parent was fit to care for a child.

Motherisk scientists were operating without any forensic training or oversight. Its test results, it has now been discovered, were faulty opinions. 
The science had seemed straightforward. Simple strands of hair are a warehouse of information, storing biomarkers that can reveal proof of drug and alcohol use. They hold that information longer than blood or urine.
This is similar to polygraph exams. Someone believes they are scientific but they are actually only faulty opinions.

Like the unscientific hair strand tests--and ballistics and bite-mark and all kinds of forensic tests--the polygraph is used to deprive people of their freedom and to break up families.

Over two years ago, Conor Friedersdorf wrote in The Atlantic about the practice of using unscientific tests and the tragic miscarriage of justice that often results. Friedersdorf writes: the Washington Post made clear Saturday in an article that begins with a punch to the gut: "Nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000," the newspaper reported, adding that "the cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death." 
The article notes that the admissions from the FBI and Department of Justice "confirm long-suspected problems with subjective, pattern-based forensic techniques—like hair and bite-mark comparisons—that have contributed to wrongful convictions in more than one-quarter of 329 DNA-exoneration cases since 1989."
When you hear prosecutors talk about forensic proof of guilt, keep your skepticism handy. Those forensic tests, pretend science, will be used against you and it will be used to damage your family.

Junk science paired with the force of government should frighten us all.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

of polygraphs, registries, minors...and everyone else

Let's talk about Zach Anderson again. He's the unfortunate and unwise young man who, at 19, had sex with a 14-year-old girl who said she was 17.

The South Bend Tribune reports:
The young man, Zachery Anderson, was sentenced harshly by a Berrien County judge who preached about the immorality of meeting partners online. The sentence included jail time and 25 years on Michigan's sex offender registry, attracted national publicity and was overturned several months later by a different judge.
Zach was days away from completing probation when he was arrested October 11 for violating his probation restrictions.
It was during a recent polygraph that Zach truthfully answered the question that led to his recent troubles: Have you had any contact with anyone younger than 18? Yes, Zach said.
Bam. His honest answer during a polygraph resulted in the arrest.

Courts are not allowed to use results of a polygraph exam because polygraphs are not scientifically reliable. If probation officers were required to treat polygraphs the way courts use them--which is to say, not at all--Zach would likely be off probation.

Instead, probation officers are allowed to mandate polygraph testing.
Elkhart County's probation department has required regular polygraph tests, at $300 apiece, and Zach has taken at least five. 
Zach wasn't arrested for violating parole because he failed the exam; he was arrested because the polygraph was an opportunity for the probation officer and the polygraph examiner to push him to incriminate himself.

Probation officers can use polygraphs to take away the freedom of a probationer. Veracity has nothing to do with it.

Zach's parents have raised holy hell to protect their son from the perils of the sex offender registry. What parent wouldn't do the same? Through their efforts, their son's story has been told far and wide.

It is easy to sympathize with Zach's situation and recognize that his punishment for unwise behavior has been far out of proportion to the crime he committed. It is also easy to wonder if a 19-year-old having consensual sex ought to even be a crime.

Nevertheless, their son is still mired in the criminal justice system.
Les [Zach's dad] has written a letter to President Trump that he intends to also send to Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. senators, asking for "Zach's Law," which would protect young people from sex laws that have such unintended consequences. 
It is worth remembering Radley Balko's suggestion that laws named after victims are usually an emotional response, not one based on reason.

Young people do need protection from draconian laws. The Tribune continues:
Tough laws on sex offenders don't take into account their calamitous effects on young people unwary of the electronic age and its consequences, said Amanda Anderson, Zach's mother. 
Absolutely. Inarguable.
"Has there been life lessons learned? You bet there has," Amanda said of her family's experiences. But "we will continue to pursue the rescue of minors under the draconian image of the sex offender registry law."
The one lesson the Anderson family seems yet to learn is that the registry is bad for everyone. 

Bad for families on the registry, bad for communities funding a registry quickly growing unwieldy, bad for law enforcement agencies who  squander resources enforcing registry laws that protect no one.

Leaving people on the registry because they committed crimes worse than teenage sex means that children of registrants are still at risk.

Every family living on the registry worries that their kids will suffer because of it. Too many kids do suffer.

Some families are torn apart by probation restrictions that prevent the registrant from contact with his own children, even when the children were not victims of the crime. Some families struggle financially because of the cost of probation. See above where Zach paid at least $1500 for junk science polygraphs.

Financial struggles continue after probation and parole are completed because employers are often reluctant to hire registrants.

Childhood friendships can be difficult when parents won't allow kids to visit the home of a registrant or when kids learn to taunt children who live on the registry. Schools can be willing to humiliate the children of registrants by refusing to treat their family as all the other families are treated. Places of worship are too willing to restrict the ability of a registrant to attend services with his family.

The registry inhibits a family that wants to overcome the trauma of a family member committing a crime.

After serving the sentence handed down by the court, a person deserves to return to be welcomed back into society. The registry prevents that.

Families in which someone committed a violent, non-sexual assault are better able to return to life as it was before that crime because information about that crime is not easily available. Families of those on the registry deserve the same dignity and respect.

The  Andersons would do much more good by advocating for the abolition of the sex offender registry.

Rescuing minors is shortsighted.

Previous posts about Zach Anderson:

bad for kids, bad for all; abolish the registry!
The sex offender registry is a bad idea for anyone. No matter how guilty or how unsympathetic, no offender deserves extra-judicial punishment long after serving the sentence handed down by the court.
Families torn apart are all too common when sex offenses are involved, even when the offense used to be something for which parents grounded the kids and law enforcement was only rarely involved.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Elizabeth Letourneau talks about non-offending pedophiles

In her TEDMED talk, Elizabeth Letourneau talks about a humbling experience: while developing a program to prevent adolescent pedophiles from offending, she was surprised to learn that adolescent pedophiles were already not offending, even without benefit of a program like hers.

Letourneau, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse and Professor at the Department of Mental Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said:
The peak age for engaging a pre-pubescent child in harmful or illegal sexual behavior is fourteen. Fourteen years old. So that's the first important fact, that about half of all sexual offenses committed against pre-pubescent children are committed by other children.
If we think back to our own childhoods, many of us can remember times when something happened that, today, would be labeled child sexual abuse and many of those instances involved child perpetrators. The same is true today.
Second. How likely do you think it is that a child who has one conviction for a sexual offense will get a conviction for a second sexual offense? In reality, 97 to 98% of children convicted of a sexual offense are never re-convicted of another one. Ninety-seven to ninety-eight percent do not reoffend with a new sexual offense.
With rare exceptions, the childhood perpetrators we can remember did not go on to a lifetime of sexual offenses.
My research shows that sex offender registration and public notification do nothing--nothing--to prevent juvenile sexual offending or to improve community safety in any way. Instead, these policies cause harm. We surveyed 265 therapists who treat children who have sexually offended. Almost all of them linked registration and public notification to serious harmful outcomes.
Even children who are not on the registry themselves are harmed by the registry. When a parent or a sibling is on the registry, other children in the home are left to deal with the all the difficulties imposed by the registry. The family may need to relocate to a home that meets residence requirements, others in the neighborhood may shun the family. Imagine growing up and either not being allowed to invite friends over or not being able to live with the sibling on the registry. Imagine a parent who is not allowed to be alone with you or not allowed to attend your school events.

The registry and its rules damage families. Is it worth doing that to families in our community when everything points to the likelihood that the registrant will never re-offend? If we are trying to prevent child sexual abuse, the registry isn't doing that.

Letourneau develops programs to prevent sexual abuse of children.
Decades of research shows that we can prevent every other kind of child victimization--child physical abuse, child neglect, bullying, peer-on-peer physical violence. We can prevent these forms of abuse because we know why people offend in these ways. We've designed policies and programs to address those risk factors.
Well, we know why children engage in harmful and illegal sexual behaviors.... Risk factors include sheer ignorance, impulsivity, inadequate adult supervision, risk-taking, delinquency, and sometimes--rarely, but sometimes--sexual interest in young children. These are just some of the risk factors associated with adolescent sexual offending.
If it can be prevented, we need to learn how. Educating people on who is at risk is a start.

If pedophiles--those who have a genuine sexual attraction to children--can avoid offending, so can those who aren't pedophiles.

Letourneau says,
We rightly stigmatize and punish adult sexual violence but children are not adults. It is appropriate and it is just to treat them differently.
She is right that children who offend need to be treated differently from adults. Punishing adults for sexual violence is proper. Stigmatizing sexual violence is proper.

Stigmatizing those who have served their sentence by putting them on the registry, though, is wrong. As Letourneau said, offender registration and public notification do nothing--nothing--to prevent juvenile sexual offending or to improve community safety in any way.