Predicting Future Dangerous Activity

Article excerpt

Scientific advancement and legal case law precedent have had a great impact on the law enforcement community and the ability of its personnel to meet one of their primary functions: protecting private citizens from criminal activity and successfully prosecuting all criminal offenders. In some instances, there almost appears to be an irreconcilable conflict between the system of criminal justice administered by state and federal courts, the divergent theories and studies produced and advocated by the scientific-healthcare communities, and the practical effect it has on daily law enforcement operations nationwide.

The October 2000 National Conference on Science and the Law-- sponsored by the Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, the Criminal Justice Section of the American Bar Association, and the National Center for State Courts in collaboration with the Federal Judicial Center and the National Academy of Sciences- made strides to promote understanding and mutual agreement as to many of the legal/scientific/criminal justice issues relevant to these diverse areas of concentration and study.

Although the participants in this conference discussed a wide range of issues related to legal/scientific matters of mutual interest, a large portion of the conference was devoted to: a critique of present psychological tests employed to predict the future threat of an individual; an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of these psychological techniques; and an examination of future criteria in which genetic history and background will be utilized to predict individual dangerous conduct and activity. The conference focused on current and anticipated future trends in risk assessment, actuarial tests used to assist in validating risk assessment, scientific basis for risk assessments, genetic predictors and the scientific/legal impact of these assessments on sexual predators and other violent offenders.

In addition, the conference conducted workshops on preventive intervention techniques; future issues dealing with DNA and the potential for a national DNA database of past and predicted potentially dangerous and violent offenders; and the inherent social and legal consequences of these future developments.

The psychological community's past approach to identifying potentially violent offenders has undergone severe change in analysis and philosophy. Previously, there was a more clinical emphasis in identifying a dangerous person- for use at bail hearings, sentencing, sex offender commitments, and other criminal justice proceedings- and healthcare personnel placed emphasis on distinguishing violent from non-violent people.

The false-positive error rates compiled in studies during the past decade have been too high for legitimate use in judicial proceedings. The contemporary approach by mental healthcare professionals has been to focus on the higher risk of repeat offenders and identifying social, economic and environmental factors that increase or reduce the probability that the subject of analysis will be a repeat offender.

Among the traditional actuarial instruments used to predict the potential for future violent behavior is the IQ test with its proven track record of reliability and measurement. Although this proven test provides consistency in error rate and past validation, more recent psychological tests have been developed and employed in both clinical and legal matters. The Violent Risk Appraisal Guide (VRAG) and the Sex Offender Risk Assessment Guide (SORAG) have been utilized to predict with a high degree of statistical accuracy the potential for future violent and dangerous conduct. …