Sex and violence - all in the interests of science

Legal and Criminal Psychology

May 29, 1998

What is the purpose of this journal? I searched in vain for the mission of Legal and Criminological Psychology. A quick check of the identity of the editors reveals that they enjoy an excellent reputation in their respective fields of psychology and law. The editorial board is equally impressive with an international flavour and a liberal sprinkling of those who are both academics and practitioners. This is a journal of the British Psychological Society and, to judge from the cast of distinguished contributors and referees, it is more about psychology engaging with the law than vice versa, which is a pity.

It could be strengthened by the addition of a progressive heavyweight from the world of law to challenge some of the assumptions psychologists and lawyers make about one another and the justice systems within which they have to work. Without that high-level iconoclastic contribution one is left with a sense of introspection and preoccupation with tinkering with the system rather than challenging some of its fundamental errors. This is particularly disappointing since lawyers are prone to build these flaws into their systems owing to an ignorance of psychological processes, such as memory. They end up making assumptions about the abilities of witnesses that are contradicted by a substantial body of psychological research. Similarly, politicians and policy-makers are often tempted to appeal to popular opinion, saying, for example, that "prison works" when psychological and criminological research has shown that prison just takes bad people and makes them worse.

The contributors to Legal and Criminological Psychology are highly experienced and well informed. They are just the kind of people to whom other disciplines and policymakers should be listening, but are they? This journal seems instead to be aimed at providing an outlet for the more fainthearted who are exercised at the molecular level with tiny improvements and insights as a result of respectable and well-conducted research. The range of subjects covered is wide, from evaluation of a training programme for sex offenders to false confessions and reasons why suspects confess to the police. It has all the ingredients of a good read - sex, violence, suggestibility, with the added reassurance that one is acquiring this knowledge in the interests of science.

In one issue, David Cooke examines predicting offending in prisons, revealing that there is apparently a Prison Behaviour Rating Scale. His research showed that an "anti-authority" scale and to a lesser extent the "dull-confused" scale, can predict those who will offend with some accuracy. Even better, these scales will predict those who will not offend with relatively high accuracy. Unfortunately, although the results indicate that it is possible to predict over 90 per cent of those who are going to offend against prison discipline, this is at the cost of a high false-positive rate. Reversing the process to predict those who will not offend parallels the approach adopted in medicine where it is common practice to screen individuals to exclude disease. At a time when the new government is launching its enlightened youth justice policy encouraging all the relevant agencies - police, education, probation, social services - to work together to prevent kids becoming prolific offenders, there must be a way in which Cooke's research can be adapted to predict those who will not offend with a high degree of accuracy. This would have enormous resource implications, as scarce resources could be more effectively targeted at the "at risk" group.

Some of the writers display a commitment to using the knowledge acquired from their research to improving the systems with which they work. In this sense they are similar to modern business managers obsessed with notions of continuous improvement. Organisations have found that when they re-engineer their business processes, tiny improvements collectively generate large benefits. Is there a way in which all the benefits lurking around in the papers of this journal can be harnessed for the greater good?

Some "golden oldies" are wheeled out, with David Farrington and colleagues rehearsing yet again variations on the theme of criminal families and the cycle of deprivation. Good stuff but why has it taken almost two decades for this knowledge to start to influence policy-makers? Faced with a criminal justice system in crisis, can we afford the luxury of such a leisurely trickle-down from research to improved practice? This is the challenge facing Legal and Criminological Psychology: how to add value to all these tiny insights that have the potential to improve our systems of justice.

Tom Williamson is assistant chief constable (designate), Nottinghamshire Constabulary.

Legal and Criminal Psychology

Editor - Mary McMurran and Sally Lloyd-Bostock
ISBN - ISSN 1355 3259
Publisher - British Psychological Society
Price - £55.00

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