Ward Climate? Research Shows: Still No Operationalized Definition

Ward climate is often used to refer to the material, social, and emotional conditions of a unit that influence the mood, behavior, and self-concept of the individuals involved. This study sought to examine the psychometric properties of the EssenCES and the GCI-r, two self-report questionnaires that assess ward climate, and the overlap between these two instruments in three high security forensic psychiatric facilities. Good internal consistency was found for all subscales of both instruments, and analyses indicated that the instruments measure related concepts. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in The International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | International Journal of Forensic Mental Health| 2018, Vol. 17, No. 3, 247-255

Ward Climate in a High-Secure Forensic Psychiatric Setting: Comparing Two Instruments

Authors

Meike Godelieve de Vries, Division Diagnostics Research and Education, Forensic Psychiatric Centre Pompestichting, Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Inti Angelo Brazil, Division Diagnostics Research and Education, Forensic Psychiatric Centre Pompestichting, Nijmegen, The Netherlands; Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands; Collaborative Antwerp Psychiatric Research Institute, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium; Centre for Psychology, Behaviour, & Achievement, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Coventry University, UK
Peer van der Helm, Hogeschool Leiden, Youth Expert Centre, Leiden University of Profressional Sciences, Leiden, The Netherlands
Robbert-Jan Verkes, Division Diagnostics Research and Education, Forensic Psychiatric Centre Pompestichting, Nijmegen, The Netherlands; Department of Criminal Law, Law School, Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands; Radboud University Medical Centre, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Berend Hendrik Bulten, Division Diagnostics Research and Education, Forensic Psychiatric Centre Pompestichting, Nijmegen, The Netherlands; Behavioural Science Institute (BSI), Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Abstract

The psychometric properties and associations between the Essen Climate Evaluation Schema (EssenCES) and the Group Climate Instrument-revised (GCI-r) were examined. These self-report questionnaires assessing ward climate were filled out by 123 male patients, residing in 3 high-secure forensic psychiatric facilities. Good internal consistency was found for all subscales of both instruments. The original factor structure was confirmed for the EssenCES, but not for the GCI-r. Bivariate correlation analyses indicated that the instruments measure related concepts. The results of this study call for further development and validation and for finding common grounds in the definition and operationalization of ward climate.

Keywords

EssenCES, GCI-r, ward climate, self-report measures, psychometric properties

Summary of the Research

“it has long been recognized that ward climate or atmosphere plays an important role in the efficacy of treatment in psychiatric hospitals…Ward climate or social climate is often used as a term to refer to the material, social, and emotional conditions of a particular unit and the interaction between such factors, which may influence the mood, behavior and self-concept of the people involved…Having an optimal ward climate has been described as a prerequisite for fostering program responsivity and enhancing treatment readiness. There is a growing body of research on ward climate, demonstrating that positive ward climate often co-occurs with positive organizational and therapeutic outcomes in inpatient forensic psychiatric care. For instance, the quality of ward climate is found to be related to motivation to engage in treatment, coping, and therapeutic alliance, staff and patient satisfaction, self-reported aggression and aggressive incidents, and recidivism…” (p.247).

“…Nowadays, relatively short questionnaires are preferred and used to monitor and compare ward climate and to guide clinical practice. One example of this type of instrument is the Essen Climate Evaluation Schema (EssenCES)…The EssenCES was developed for use in forensic psychiatric units. The EssenCES is also available for correctional and prison settings…The psychometric quality of the EssenCES in correctional settings and forensic psychiatric hospitals has been studied and supported several times. However, additional research on its suitability is required for specialized settings such as female units, facilities for juvenile offenders, and forensic facilities for individuals with learning disabilities. The EssenCES measures three aspects of ward climate, namely ‘Therapeutic Hold,’ referring to the extent to which the unit is perceived as supportive of patients’ therapeutic needs; ‘Experienced Safety,’ representing freedom from the threat of aggression and violence; and ‘Patient Cohesion and Mutual Support…,’ indicating the extent to which characteristics of a therapeutic community are approximated on a unit” (p.248).

“A second example of a relatively short questionnaire developed to monitor ward climate is the Group Climate Instrument revised (CGI-r) derived from the Prison Group Climate Inventory (PGCI)…The PGCI was developed to measure group climate in youth prisons and secure residential treatment facilities…The GCI-r assesses four dimensions of ward climate, namely ‘Support…;’’ ‘Growth,’ reflecting facilitation of learning and preparation for a meaningful life both within and outside the closed facility; ‘Atmosphere…;’ and ‘Repression,’ which measures a negative side of ward climate encompassing perceptions of strictness and control, unfair rules and boredom, and lack of flexibility on the ward…it has yet to be determined whether and to what extent these two instruments diverge or overlap in the aspects of ward climate that they intend to measure. The main goal of the present study was to examine the psychometric properties of the EssenCES and the CGI-r, and the overlap between the instruments, in a Dutch high-secure forensic psychiatric setting” (p.248).

“A strong positive relationship was expected between the Therapeutic Hold scale of the EssenCES and the Support scale of the GCI-r, because both factors represent the quality of the relationship between patients and staff members in terms of responsiveness to patients’ needs. The Atmosphere scale of the GCI-r seems to assess elements of both the Experienced Safety and Patient Cohesion scale of the EssenCES, therefore a positive association between these scales was expected. A negative relationship was expected between the Repression scale of the GCI-r and the Therapeutic Hold scale of the EssenCES, as repression measures among other things unfair, repressive behavior by staff members. Because repression is the only aspect aimed at a negative side of ward climate, negative relationships between the Repression scale of the GCI-r and all other scales…were expected” (p.248-249).

“Bivariate correlation analyses showed that the GCI-r and the EssenCES were strongly related. As expected, a strong positive relationship was found between the Support scale of the GCI-r and the EssenCES’ Therapeutic Hold scale. Also, a strong positive relationship between the Atmosphere scale of the GCI-r and the Experienced Safety and Patient Cohesion scales of the EssenCES was found. However, it should be noted that strong correlations were found between the Atmosphere scale of the GCI-r and all the other scales (both of the EssenCES and GCI-r)…In line with our expectations, the Repression scale of the CGI-r showed strong negative relationships with all other scales (both of the EssenCES and CGI-r). The highest correlation was with the Therapeutic Hold scale of the EssenCES and the lowest with the Patient Cohesion scale of the EssenCES. This finding supports the notion that the Repression scale measures a concept reflecting the negative transactional processes (structure, power, coercion) between staff members and patients in a closed setting” (p.252).

“Our expectation that the Growth scale of the GCI-r would show relatively low correlations with the sub-scales of the EssenCES was not supported. The Growth scale of the GCI-r was strongly related to the Therapeutic Hold scale of the EssenCES. It is plausible that focusing on facilitation of learning and preparation for a meaningful life both within and outside the closed facility is an important element of therapeutic holding” (p.252)

Translating Research into Practice

“Our findings illustrate the importance of considering how instruments may differ in the definition and operationalization of ward climate. Hence, instruments used in clinical practice seem to differ in the aspects of ward climate they aim to measure and the amount of empirical support that they do so in a valid way. Nursing staff and management within the high-secure forensic setting could use the knowledge derived from this and other studies in their choices related to monitoring ward climate…The EssenCES will invite individuals to evaluate topics like safety, support, and cohesion on a group level (while taking other group members into account in their evaluation). Furthermore, the EssenCES can be used to measure how ward climate is perceived by both staff members and patients. Taking the perception of both staff and patients into account when monitoring ward climate is important, as their general perception of ward climate may differ” (p.253).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“A critical note is that although both the EssenCES and the CGI-r are relatively easy to use in clinical practice, both instruments draw a simplified picture of ward climate. There are studies advocating a more in-depth definition and operationalization of ward climate. Alongside routine monitoring using short self-report measures, it has been recommended that more detailed information should be gathered by using more lengthy questionnaires, by means of focus groups, or through individual interviews with patients and staff” (p.253).

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Amber Lin

Amber Lin is a volunteer in Dr. Zapf’s research lab at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She graduated from New York University in 2013 with a B.A. (honors) and is a second year Masters student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her research interests include forensic assessment, competency to stand trial, and the refinement of instruments used to assess the psychological states of criminal defendants.

The impact of gender and views of sexualization on sexual harassment judgments

Allowing people to consider information about how others view sexual objectification could reduce the influence of gender and attitudes toward sexualization on judgments of sexual harassment. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2018, Vol. 42, No. 6, 545-557

The Objective Prong in Sexual Harassment: What Is the Standard?

Authors

Richard L. Wiener, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Trace C. Vardsveen, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Abstract

In Title VII sexual harassment jurisprudence, U.S. courts use a 2-prong subjective-objective test to determine the viability of a sexual harassment claim: The complainant must show that the employer’s conduct was unwelcome and sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment because of the complainant’s sex from both the complainant’s perspective (subjective prong) and a reasonable person’s perspective (objective prong). This online study used a diverse national sample (361 MTurk Community Members) to investigate whether people apply the objective prong in a uniform manner, as the law assumes, or show predictable differences. Participants read a vignette about a female interviewee’s allegations of sexual harassment following from severe, mild, or no sexual objectification by a male interviewer during a job interview. The interviewee claimed that she was either harassed or not by the interviewer during the interaction, as well as claiming to enjoy or reject sexualization. Participants made judgments about whether the interviewer’s behavior was sexually harassing from the interviewee’s and a reasonable person’s perspective. Overall, participants’ sex and enjoyment of sexualization moderated their judgments of sexual harassment when considering the situation from both points of view, demonstrating that there is no convergence on a unified standard for evaluating whether specific behavior is sexually harassing. Drawing comparisons to obscenity law, we argue that the use of data to form social fact evidence may help decision makers in hostile work environment cases to apply a more uniform understanding of what is hostile and abusive.

Keywords

sexual harassment, objectification, discrimination, hostile work environment

Summary of the Research

“Hostile work environment sexual harassment law prohibits one worker from subjecting another to an abusive environment provided that the complainant perceives the environment as hostile (i.e., the subjective prong of the test) and a reasonable person in a ‘similar environment under essentially like or similar circumstances’ would also find the working conditions to be hostile or abusive (i.e., the objective prong of the test). The current article argues that the objective prong is susceptible to individual difference factors in a manner similar to the community standard test in federal obscenity law. Obscenity law requires a judgment of whether the objectionable materials appeal to the prurient interest or are patently offensive from the perspective of the community exposed to those materials” (p. 545).

“The purpose of the current study was to examine more closely how evaluators with second hand information about the transpiring events, that is, predictors, respond to experiencer claims that they were the victims of harassment. We wondered whether predictor’s gender and measured ESS [Enjoyment of Sexualization Scale] scores were moderators of their harassment judgments. Treating participants as reasonable persons and asking them to evaluate the environment that the target experienced under essentially like or similar circumstances allowed us to examine the way in which predictors make objective prong judgments, including the role of individual differences. Participants read vignettes that described the Wiener et al. (2013) lab interview in which a male interviewer did or did not sexually objectify a female job candidate, who either did or did not complain that she was harassed. The objectification was either severe, that is, longer in duration or mild, shorter in duration. Finally, we included as a speculative factor a statement expressing whether the experiencer did or did not enjoy being sexualized to test whether the predictor’s own enjoyment of sexualization was as important as the experiencer’s reported enjoyment of sexualization” (p. 547).

“The central question was, how does ‘a reasonable person in a similar environment under essentially like or similar circumstances’ to the experiencer, determine whether the situation described in our vignette was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile environment? If ordinary people rely upon a unified national community standard, that is, one that does not change with differences in predictor sensitivities toward sexual objectification, then the answer should depend on the level of sexual objectification that the target experiences, whether the target complained about harassment, and perhaps whether the target normally enjoys sexualization. It should not depend upon individual differences among the predictors. We predicted that harassment judgments would be the strongest under severe objectification conditions when the experencer complained of the harassing behavior, as well as when she did not enjoy sexualization. These judgments should be the weakest in the no objectification control condition, when the experiencer does not complain of harassment and when she enjoys sexualization. Thus, a unified community standard would predict main effects of objectification and possibly two-way interactions between that factor and target complaints of harassment, as well as two-way interactions between objectification and target enjoyment of sexualization, factors that depict the objective events in our vignette” (p. 547).

“However, to the extent that individual differences such as gender of the participant and the participant’s own enjoyment of sexualization interact with the severity of objectification, there is evidence that any national community standard breaks down with differences in evaluator sensitivities. If that is the case, then similar to obscenity judgments under federal law, hostile work environment judgments may benefit from empirical evidence demonstrating whether or not a reasonable person would find the complained after behavior harassing. Such evidence could help systematize the community standard. In summary, we posit two opposing hypotheses: Hypothesis 1 (unified national community standard exists) was that there would be main effects on harassment judgments for level of severity of sexual objectification and, perhaps, two-way interactions between objectification and the interviewer’s claim of harassment, as well as her self-reported enjoyment of sexualization. The opposing Hypothesis 2 (no unified national standard exists) predicted that the effect of severity of objectification would emerge, but only some of the time depending upon the participant’s gender and measured enjoyment of sexualization. That is, participant gender and enjoyment of sexualization would trigger predictable sensitivities, such that women would be more sensitive to milder forms of objectification, as would evaluators who did not enjoy sexualization” (p. 547).

“The manipulation of sexual objectification had the intended impact on judgments of interviewer unprofessionalism with participants in the severe objectification condition finding the interviewee to be most unprofessional, followed by those in the mild objectification condition, and then the no objectification control condition. Most interestingly, the difference between the severe and mild condition was significant for men but not for women, suggesting that women found any occurrence of objectification unprofessional while men differentiated according to objectification severity. There are a number of potential reasons why the manipulation behaved differently for men than for women, including greater ability to detect objectification in women, greater sensitivity to the male interviewer’s conduct in men, and gender differences in standards of professional conduct. Although the current data does not allow a complete explanation of these differences, future experimental studies that vary objectification severity in more nuanced ways (e.g., manipulating the content of the comments, using a fuller range of gaze times and manipulating the interviewer’s nonverbal behavior) will be important to understand gender differences in perceived objectification. Finally, the manipulation of the interviewee’s claim was also successful in that participants who read that the interviewee complained that she was harassed rated the interviewer more negatively than did those who read about an interviewee that did not complain” (p. 554).

“With regard to participants’ inferences about the subjective prong of the severe or pervasive test, participants taking the interviewee’s perspective found more evidence of subjective harassment in the severe objectification condition, less in the mild condition and the least in the no objectification condition. However, several factors qualified this finding. First, men discriminated between mild and severe harassment when determining if the interviewee experienced harassment whereas women did not; instead they found any objectification harassing as compared to no objectification. But most interesting was that the participants’ enjoyment of sexualization did not predict their reactions to mild objectification but did predict their reactions to severe objectification. Those who read about severe objectification were less likely to find that the interviewee had experienced legal harassment as their enjoyment of sexualization increased. Furthermore, participants who read that the interviewee claimed that she was harassed found more evidence of subjective harassment than did those who learned that the interviewee did not claim harassment. Nonetheless, the fact that the participants’ own enjoyment of sexualization moderated their evaluations of severe objectification, but that the interviewee’s report of sexualization did not moderate participants’ evaluations of either severe or mild sexual objectification is somewhat disturbing, given that Kimble et al. (2016) found that those experiencers’ responses to actual objectification depended upon the experiencers’ own enjoyment of sexualization. Unbiased predictors ought to consider the experiencer’s level of sexualization enjoyment and not their own, when judging objectification. Thus, although we did not design our experiment to find bias in inferences of subjective harassment, these results suggest that such bias occurred in our participants’ judgments. In other words, when evaluating the subjective prong by determining whether the interviewee experienced harassment, the evaluators should have been more influenced by the interviewee’s enjoyment of sexualization, rather than their own” (p. 554).

“Even though neither the complainant’s own claim of harassment nor her espoused level of enjoyment of sexualization influenced the reasonable person judgments, the objectification effects support Hypothesis 1, suggesting that a unified national standard exists but that reasonable others make that judgment without considering the claims of the target regarding the experience of harassment or her rejection of sexualization. Had we stopped here, this would be the conclusion for the objective prong. However, we found that sex of the participant moderated this effect such that the pattern just discussed described the judgments that reasonable women made but not those of reasonable men. In fact, the men did not show an overall significant difference in legal harassment across the three objectification conditions. This is true even though men were more nuanced than were women when they evaluated the unprofessionalism inherent in sexual objectification. Thus, these data show that sex of the evaluator splinters any unified national standard for sexual harassment, supporting Hypothesis 2” (p. 554).

“Further support for Hypothesis 2, that a unified standard does not naturally exist, comes from the moderating influence of participants’ enjoyment of sexualization on their interpretation of sexual objectification. Although participants found the mild and severe objectification harassing compared to the no objectification controls, the differences deteriorated as participant enjoyment of sexualization increased and finally disappeared at the highest levels of ESS. In the severe condition, those who scored low on the ESS found significant objectification effects on legal harassment but the effect of objectification steadily decreased as scores increased on the ESS. In fact, participants scoring at the 90th ESS percentile, did not find severe objectification harassing as compared to no objectification. A similar pattern, but with slower convergence, emerged in the mild objectification condition, but this time ESS did not moderate those in the objectification condition, but instead moderated those in the control, no objectification condition. Together these findings challenge the existence of a unified standard, which not only breaks down by gender, but further splinters depending upon whether participants do or do not enjoy sexualization. Clearly, these findings draw into question the existence of a unified agreement of the effects of sexual objectification among predictors who ultimately serve as jurors, EEOC officers, and perhaps even judges” (p. 554).

Translating Research into Practice

“Taken together, our findings support Hypothesis 2 and demonstrate specific ways in which sex of the evaluator and enjoyment of sexualization limit the uniformity of a standard for evaluating alleged sexual misconduct. When the courts faced a similar problem for criminal obscenity, that is, when they found the community standard for establishing a prurient interest in sex and a patently offensive view of sex varied according to the sensitivities of the members of the national community, they allowed jurors to hear empirical evidence that assisted them in identifying the community standard as illustrated above in People v. Nelson (1980). Similarly, the current data point to the need for social fact evidence in sexual harassment law. Here, social facts refer to a specialized type of adjudicated fact, that is, facts the jury hears that describe the parties, their activities, their properties or their businesses, which social scientists collect by applying scientific methodologies specific to the issues in a particular case to try and prove some issue in the case. Here, social fact data would be similar to those in obscenity cases that help the trier of fact determine a national community standard, a standard that the ninth circuit already requires in obscenity law when questionable materials are distributed across the Internet” (p. 555-556).

“What would these social facts look like in a sexual harassment case? They would be a collection of judgments about sexual harassment for the specific conduct complained about in a particular case. If the case were about severe sexual objectification, the data would look very much like the results in the current study. That is, an expert would present to the jurors the overall judgment of harassment across levels of objectification as well as the differences that occur as a function of sex and enjoyment of sexualization. The goal would be to assist triers of fact to reach a consensus despite their own individual differences, so that they did not rely on the views of either oversensitive or undersensitive individuals, who very well could be members of the jury. If a case were about other forms of potential harassment, such as name calling, uninvited acts of touching, unreciprocated sexual attention or some combination, then the relevant research would use those circumstances to present judgments made by men and women under varying conditions. As is the case with all social fact data, the jury would retain the final judgment, but under a Daubert or even a Frye admissibility regime, social fact data showing how reasonable people make harassment judgments would need to be relevant, reliable, and helpful to the triers of fact by assisting them to formulate an objective decision that is in compliance with the sufficiently severe or pervasive test. We think the current study makes the need for these types of data clear” (p. 556).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Analysis of objective harassment judgments from the reasonable person perspective (i.e., the objective prong) showed main effects of objectification such that there were higher ratings of objective harassment in both of the objectification conditions as compared to the control, no objectification condition. And yet, these same participants failed to incorporate the interviewee’s claim of whether she was harassed as they interpreted the objectification information. While a single finding does not necessarily point to a policy implication, our results do suggest that predictors may not weigh the experiencers’ perspectives when evaluating objectification. Instead, they seem to rely more on themselves as reference points when forecasting the impact of objectification severity. If this finding replicates, it suggests that predictors (e.g., human resource officials, EEOC officers and jurors) may overestimate the importance of sexual objectification when forecasting the effects of that conduct as they judge harassment. Additional research on this issue will help us understand the impact of sexual objectification when people make harassment judgments” (p. 554-555).

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Amanda Beltrani

Amanda Beltrani is a current doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, professional decision making, and cognitive biases.

When innocent confess: Modern potential jurors’ attitude toward false confessions

Modern potential jurors are more aware of the false confession phenomenon, with media promoting knowledge about interrogation and confession process. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2018, Vol. 24, No. 3, 430–448

A survey of potential jurors’ perceptions of interrogations and confessions

Authors

Amelia Mindthoff, Florida International University
Jacqueline R. Evans, Florida International University
Gissel Perez, Florida International University
Skye A. Woestehoff, George Mason University
Alma P. Olaguez, University of California, Irvine
J. Zoe Klemfuss, University of California, Irvine
Christopher J. Normile, Central Michigan University
Kyle C. Scherr, Central Michigan University
Marianna E. Carlucci, Loyola University Maryland
Rolando N. Carol, Auburn University at Montgomery
Christian A. Meissner, Iowa State University
Stephen W. Michael, Whitman College
Melissa B. Russano, Roger Williams University
Eric L. Stocks, University of Texas at Tyler
Jonathan P. Vallano, University of Pittsburg at Greensburg
William Douglas Woody, University of Northern Colorado

Abstract

Confessions represent one of the most influential types of evidence, and research has shown that mock jurors often fail to dismiss unreliable confession evidence. However, recent studies suggest that jurors might believe in the false confession phenomenon more than they once did. One possible reason for this could be increased publicity regarding false confession cases. To assess this possibility, we administered an extensive online survey to a sample of potential jurors in the United States from 11 universities and Amazon Mechanical Turk. Perceptions of confession behaviors (as related to others and oneself), Miranda waivers, interrogation methods, dispositional risk factors, and confession admissibility and evidentiary weight were assessed, in addition to respondents’ self-reported crime-media activity and familiarity with disputed confession cases. Respondents’ perceptions were generally consistent with empirical research findings. Respondents believed suspects do not understand their Miranda rights; gauged interrogation tactics usage relatively accurately; viewed psychologically coercive tactics as coercive and more likely to result in false, rather than true, confessions; and recognized that confessions elicited via coercive measures should be inadmissible as evidence in court. However, respondents’ perceptions did not align with research on interrogation length, and respondents did not fully appreciate the risk youth poses in interrogations. Moreover, being familiar with disputed confession cases resulted in more negative views of interrogations and confessions. Overall, potential jurors are seemingly more cognizant of false confessions and the tactics that elicit them than in the past, and evidence suggests that media outlets can be used to promote interrogation and confession knowledge.

Keywords

Interrogation, confession, juror, Miranda rights

Summary of the Research

“Of 125 known false confession cases, 37 cases were presented at trial (note: the remaining cases did not make it to trial for various reasons such as dismissals or guilty pleas). Consequently, 81% of these 37 cases resulted in a wrongful conviction, meaning 30 innocent people were wrongfully sentenced to serve time in prison on the basis of a confession that was factually false. […] In these cases, all of the safeguards intended to either prevent false confessions in the first place or to minimize their influence failed. Past research indicates that false confessions result from various situational and dispositional risk factors, and despite demonstrations of false confessions in case studies, people have historically found it difficult to believe that innocent suspects would confess to crimes they did not commit. However, recent experimental studies indicate that potential jurors’ confession knowledge may have improved. Assessing these possibly shifting beliefs is the primary goal of the present study, in which we gathered current data regarding lay knowledge of a broad range of interrogations and confessions topics and assessed potential predictors of this knowledge (e.g., familiarity with actual disputed confession cases).” (p. 431)

“Even before questioning begins, innocent suspects encounter risk, as they are more likely than guilty suspects to waive their Miranda rights and undergo police questioning. This is presumably due to innocent suspects’ naïve belief that “the power of their own innocence [will] set them free.” Although this innocence-waiving association is generally accepted in the field, jurors’ perceptions of these Miranda-related decisions have not been extensively examined.” (p. 431)

“Once inside the interrogation room, innocent suspects are at risk of falsely confessing because of the accusatory and psychologically coercive nature of the tactics typically used in U.S. interrogations—a risk that jurors might not fully appreciate. Psychologically coercive tactics minimize suspects’ perception of their freedom of choice and can increase the likelihood of false confessions, and such tactics are more likely to be used when investigators believe a suspect is guilty. […] Fortunately, jurors appear in-tune with the coercive nature of such tactics; however, this is undermined by findings that demonstrate that jurors do not believe that these coercive tactics are likely to result in false confessions. Additionally, dispositional risk factors that enhance susceptibility to coercive techniques can further increase the likelihood that suspects falsely confess, with juveniles emerging as a particularly vulnerable population. Other dispositional risk factors include low IQ, cognitive or developmental disabilities, and mental illness. Generally, jurors appear to understand that such risk factors have the propensity to result in false confessions.” (p. 431)

“Once a confession is elicited, interrogators may mold the postadmission narrative into a script that fits their knowledge of the crime and the existing evidence. […] Furthermore, confessions can be legitimized via corroboration inflation, as other evidence (e.g., forensic and eyewitness evidence) can become biased by the presence of a confession, subsequently appearing to substantiate false confessions. Such inflation can influence jurors’ perceptions of confession evidence, as potential jurors have been shown to perceive high-pressure interrogations as less coercive when evidence corroborated the confession. Overall, research on jurors’ perceptions of interrogations and confessions has indicated that confessions are extremely powerful pieces of evidence that increase the likelihood of conviction. […] While potential jurors do acknowledge that false confessions can sometimes occur, they generally agree that a confession is a strong indicator of a person’s guilt and that people who confess are probably guilty. These beliefs may be driven by the fundamental attribution error, whereby people are more likely to attribute others’ behaviors to dispositional factors (e.g., the suspect’s internal feelings of guilt) at the expense of considering the influence of situational factors (e.g., psychologically coercive interrogation methods).” (pp. 431–432)

“Recent studies examining mock jurors’ perceptions of confession evidence have suggested that jurors might be more cognizant of false confessions than they once were. […] Although these findings are promising, they conflict with the majority of past research on mock juror evaluations of confession evidence and with other recent studies. […] Given these conflicts in the literature, potential jurors’ perceptions of interrogations and confessions should be reassessed to clarify their core understanding of interrogation and confession phenomenon, which can help to better interpret experimental findings.” (p. 432)

“Jurors’ knowledge may have improved as a function of exposure to high-profile disputed confession cases. […] [The] media-exposure hypothesis is also consistent with the availability heuristic, which posits that people tend to determine the probability of events based on how easily applicable instances come to mind. Jurors exposed to greater amounts of crime-related media should more readily accept that some interrogation methods are coercive and believe that false confessions exist because cases supporting this belief should more easily come to mind.” (p. 432)

“The present study aimed to examine potential jurors’ perceptions of interrogations and confessions more generally in order to offer researchers and practitioners better (and updated) insight on potential jurors’ core knowledge of these topics. […] Furthermore, the present study sought to enhance the generalizability of results by systematically recruiting a large sample from across the United States. […] In light of recent findings, we expected to see a shift in knowledge as compared with past surveys. Additionally, we hypothesized that those familiar with popularized disputed confession cases would express different views regarding interrogations and confessions (e.g., belief that false confessions occur, that false evidence ploys are coercive), as compared with those unfamiliar with disputed confession cases.” (p. 432)

“A total of 968 participants completed the study. The student subsample (n = 768) was collected from 11 university sites, with at least one site representing each of the U.S. Census Bureau defined regions. […] The community member subsample (n = 200) was collected via Mechanical Turk (MTurk), and participants earned $1 for participation. […] The final student subsample included 648 participants and the final community member subsample included 177 participants, for an overall sample size of 825 participants. […] Participants completed the survey online via Qualtrics. After consenting to participate, respondents were asked questions regarding six topics: general perceptions of confessions (as related to others and oneself), Miranda waivers, perceptions of interrogation methods (including frequency of police use, coerciveness, and relation to true and false confessions), perceptions of the relationship between dispositional risk factors and false confessions, admissibility of confessions and weight of evidence in verdict decisions, and personal characteristics (e.g., crime media engagement and familiarity with disputed confession cases) and demographics.” (pp. 432–433)

“It appears that potential jurors continue to view confessions as relatively strong indicators of guilt; however, potential jurors seem to be more accepting than they once were of claims that suspects might falsely confess. […] Despite these shifts, people still generally believe that they themselves are relatively unlikely to falsely confess. Specifically, respondents indicated that others were more likely to falsely confess in general, and for various specific reasons, than they themselves were. […] The current data do not speak to the basis for this difference, but it could be rooted in the fundamental attribution error and people’s belief that they are immune to the negative effects of coercive interrogations.” (p. 442)

“To the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study to comprehensively examine potential jurors’ perceptions of suspects’ interactions with Miranda waivers. […] In the current study, potential jurors typically believed that suspects do not understand their Miranda rights, were generally aware that police are likely to use manipulative tactics to get suspects to waive their rights, and believed that innocent suspects are generally more likely than guilty suspects to waive their rights. All three ideas have been supported by past research showing that people typically do not have a working understanding of their Miranda rights, police sometimes use manipulative tactics to get suspects to waive their rights, and innocents are more likely than guilty individuals to waive their rights. Yet, it remains unclear what, if any, influence such juror knowledge would have during a trial.” (pp. 442–443)

“Potential jurors believed that confrontation with true evidence is highly likely to be used by police officers during interrogations. […] Additionally, potential jurors accurately gauged the extent to which threat/use of harm and false evidence ploys are used, offering these the lowest and second lowest use ratings, respectively. […] Contemporary potential jurors appear to have a better sense of what methods police actually do use.” (p. 443)

“One concerning finding is how long potential jurors think an interrogation should last. Respondents indicated that interrogations generally last more than eight hours, and that this amount of time is needed in order to elicit a confession. […] it is possible that some jurors might not question a confession’s reliability if it resulted from a prolonged interrogation. This can be detrimental when jurors make decisions about a confession’s reliability, especially considering that over 80% of interrogations in a proven false confession sample exceeded six hours.” (p. 443)

“Participants offered the highest coerciveness ratings for confrontation with false evidence, threat/use of harm, and, critically, evidence bluffs and promises of leniency. […] Our sample of potential jurors perceived the coercive nature of evidence bluffs as not different to that of false evidence confrontation. This perception is consistent with experimental evidence demonstrating that bluffs result in false confessions at a rate that does not differ from explicit false evidence ploys and that mock jurors do not differentiate between these tactics. Additionally, respondents reported the two least coercive methods to be true evidence confrontation and rapport building.” (p. 443)

“Overall, false evidence confrontation, evidence bluffs, rejecting denials, and threat/use of physical harm were perceived as more likely to lead to false confessions than to true confessions, thus hinting at potential jurors’ ability to recognize the detrimental impact of these tactics on confession diagnosticity. […] It is reassuring that potential jurors are able to recognize that such methods create an elevated risk for false confessions. However, these findings do not align with existing research that suggests that jurors might not be able to apply this knowledge when determining a confession’s reliability. […] The “jury’s still out” on whether potential jurors can effectively apply this improved knowledge.” (pp. 443–444)

“Of further interest, the present results revealed that true evidence confrontation and rapport building were deemed to likely elicit true, rather than false, confessions. […] It seems that contemporary jurors harbor beliefs similar to those held by researchers, who recommend that psychologically coercive interrogation tactics be replaced with strategic and information-gathering methods that elicit more comprehensive suspect reports and diagnostic confession evidence. In conclusion, it is possible that potential jurors have the ability to recognize when interrogation methods result in a more reliable or a less reliable confession, and as such, they might be able to make better decisions in light of confession evidence.” (p. 444)

“Respondents generally recognized the risk for false confession created by all nine of the dispositional factors noted. […] Having a mental illness received the highest mean score. […] Being under the influence of alcohol, under the influence of illegal drugs, and under the influence of prescription drugs, all factors that have not been examined in past jury-confession research, were also rated as strong contributors to false confessions. […] Additionally, having a low IQ, a poor memory of the time of the crime, and being sleep deprived were perceived as contributors to false confessions, which is consistent with past research on contributing factors. Adolescence was viewed as one of the lowest contributors to false confessions. This is disconcerting, given that the developmental phase of adolescence renders teens more prone to falsely confessing and that teens are overrepresented in known false confession samples. […] Overall, it seems that a considerable proportion of potential jurors do not recognize the full extent to which age is a risk factor for false confession.” (p. 444)

“Potential jurors in our sample perceived that they would place more weight on DNA and forensic evidence than they would on confession evidence when reaching a verdict. Eyewitness identification evidence similarly outweighed confession evidence, but only in relation to oral and retracted confessions, not written confessions (which itself outweighed oral and retracted confessions). Additionally, when asked whether confessions elicited using different interrogation methods should be admissible in court, potential jurors tended to report that confessions elicited using confrontation with true evidence and rapport building should be admissible. Conversely, they tended to believe that disputed confessions elicited by more overtly coercive methods (i.e., rejection of denials, evidence bluffs, implicit promises of leniency, threats, lies about the evidence, physical harm, lack of Miranda rights reading, and denial of food or an attorney) should not be admissible. As such, respondents seem to partially understand the law, given that confessions elicited using rapport building and confrontation with true evidence are indeed admissible, and confessions elicited from some coercive tactics are likely inadmissible (e.g., physical harm; but others are generally admissible, like those elicited using false evidence ploys). […] These findings are comforting, considering that coerced (and hence, unreliable) confessions can ultimately be presented as evidence at trial, and judges might not be fully aware that false confessions have led to wrongful convictions or of the detrimental effects of coercive interrogation methods on confession reliability. […] Given the present findings, there is hope that potential jurors can recognize the “circumstances” that can result in coerced, and possibly false, confessions, and thus place less weight on those confessions.” (p. 444)

“General crime-related media behavior did not emerge as a strong correlate for interrogation and confession perceptions. However, as hypothesized, we found that potential jurors familiar with a specific disputed/false confession case (e.g., Central Park Five) perceived several tactics as more coercive and more likely to result in false confessions relative to participants not familiar with such a case. Most importantly, compared with nonfamiliar respondents, familiar respondents were more pessimistic about interrogations and confession evidence on a host of measures (e.g., less likely to perceive confessions as indicators of guilt, more likely to believe that innocent people in general might falsely confess). Nonetheless, it is important to remember that these findings are correlational as it is possible that either familiarity informs beliefs or beliefs influence media engagement behaviors (e.g., disputed confession media viewing). Overall, these findings can be explained by the availability heuristic, as potential jurors who know about false confession cases might think that such instances occur more often than do potential jurors who do not, leaving them more open to the possibility that a given confession is false. Thus, knowledge of disputed/false confession cases should be considered as a covariate in the development of future mock juror confession studies, especially since such knowledge appears to be prevalent.” (p. 445)

“Although there were some differences between the subsamples […], the more striking finding was the extent of the agreement between students and community members. […] Findings derived from student samples are largely generalizable to potential juror populations, making participant recruitment easier for future studies, and suggesting that we can be more confident when basing policy decisions on research employing student samples.” (p. 445)

Translating Research into Practice

“Overall, our results suggest that contemporary jurors are aware that Miranda waivers may be uninformed or the result of manipulation. To the extent that triers-of-fact are able to appreciate these factors and weigh them accordingly, policy reform should mandate the video recording of Miranda administrations that could be presented and evaluated in court. However, it is also possible that jurors, despite being aware of reasons innocents would waive their rights (e.g., respondents reported that innocents may waive their rights to appear not guilty to police and triers-of-fact), would draw negative inferences when a suspect remained silent or otherwise invoked his rights. […] Hence, a policy reform to better protect innocent suspects may be to reestablish the initial precedent of the Miranda ruling and not allow any negative inferences to be used against suspects who remain silent and invoke their rights.” (pp. 445–446)

“Regarding false confessions, relative to potential jurors of the past, contemporary potential jurors generally appear to be more accepting of the possibility that false confessions can occur. Furthermore, they seem to possess insight as to the coercive nature of certain interrogation methods and the propensity of these methods to result in less diagnostic confessions. These updated findings should be considered in the development of future research hypotheses, as it seems that researchers should no longer assume that jurors automatically presume guilt in the presence of a confession.” (p. 446)

“In addition, our potential jurors’ belief that coercive tactics can result in false confessions and should not be admissible in court paves the way for possible policy change. […] It is possible that jurors will be less likely to rely on confession evidence that was elicited using such tactics. This phenomenon can be detrimental to police and prosecutors, as it can result in an increase in acquittals. Thus, prosecutorial legal players should consider ceasing the use of especially detrimental tactics (i.e., nondiagnostic interrogation techniques) and instead proactively implement evidence-based interrogation trainings for police officers.” (p. 446)

“Furthermore, our findings have implications for policies regarding juvenile interrogations. As previously mentioned, juveniles are typically treated similarly to adult suspects in interrogative contexts, despite being at greater risk for falsely confessing. This is particularly problematic because, as indicated by the present findings that potential jurors do not fully comprehend the detrimental impact youth can have on confession behaviors, jurors may not be effective safeguards against negative impacts of juvenile false confessions. […] Policies at the interrogation-level should be assessed and modified to help protect juvenile suspects.” (p. 446)

“Last, even though potential jurors are generally more knowledgeable than they once were, their knowledge is still far from perfect. […] Our finding that media regarding false confession cases may influence potential jurors’ perceptions of interrogations and confessions indicates that expert researchers could use media outlets as a way to promote better understanding of how the coercive nature of certain interrogation methods can result in false confessions. It is further important that researchers take on this task in order to ensure that the information presented in such outlets is accurate and empirically supported. By engaging in public awareness, researchers might eventually influence policy regarding coercive interrogation methods and confession admissibility from the bottom-up. Ultimately, this promotion of knowledge may reduce wrongful convictions stemming from false confessions.” (p. 446)

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Although we sought to collect data from jury-eligible participants, it is possible that some of our respondents were not jury-eligible. Specifically, our eligibility exclusions were not comprehensive […]. Thus, caution must be exercised when generalizing the present results to all potential jurors, and future research could benefit from collecting data from potential jurors at courthouses who are serving jury duty. Furthermore, generalizability concerns are commonly expressed when data is collected via MTurk. […] Additionally, we only assessed perceptions of general interrogation technique categories rather than individual tactics (e.g., we assessed true evidence confrontation, which can refer to a number of specific tactics such as early evidence disclosure or presenting crime scene photos). […] It would be interesting for future research to assess potential jurors’ perceptions of individual interrogation tactics. Future research could also assess jurors’ perceptions of the cumulative effect of multiple tactics employed at once; for example, jurors’ perceptions of an interrogation during which rapport building is used in conjunction with false evidence presentation.” (p. 445)

“Last, it is important to note that our results do not necessarily attest to jurors’ sensitivity or skepticism regarding confession evidence. […] It is possible that media surrounding disputed confession cases, while increasing prospective jurors’ knowledge of false confessions, simply could be making jurors skeptical of confession evidence. Future research should address this question.” (p. 445)

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Authored by Kseniya Katsman

Kseniya Katsman is a Master’s student in Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her interests include forensic application of dialectical behavior therapy, cultural competence in forensic assessment, and risk assessment, specifically suicide risk. She plans to continue her education and pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

Caution!: Underdiagnosis of Substance Use Disorders in Forensic Populations Overlooks Criminogenic Treatment Need

Research suggests that co-occurring substance use disorder (SUD) is prevalent among adults with psychiatric illness. To help determine how widespread co-occurring disorders (CD) are internationally, we compared current clinical diagnoses recorded in the clinical record with clinical evidence gathered during forensic assessments in an inpatient forensic facility in Ontario, Canada. The majority of the sub-sample (61%) met criteria for CD, but only 19% were diagnosed as such. Underdiagnosing SUD has a potential impact on understanding substance use as a criminogenic treatment need in forensic mental health. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | International Journal of Forensic Mental Health | 2018, Vol. 2018, No. 17, 145-153

Co-Occurring Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorders in Canadian Forensic Inpatients: Underdiagnosis and Implications for Treatment Planning

Authors

N. Zoe Hilton, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada; Waypoint Research Institute, Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care, Penetanguishene, Ontario, Canada
Shari A. McKee, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada; Waypoint Research Institute, Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care, Penetanguishene, Ontario, Canada
Elke Ham, Waypoint Research Institute, Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care, Penetanguishene, Ontario, Canada
Michelle Green, Correctional Services of Canada, Beaver Creek Institution, Gravehurst, Ontario, Canada
Lauren Wright, Waypoint Research Institute, Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care, Penetanguishene, Ontario, Canada

Abstract

Research suggests that co-occurring substance use disorder (SUD) is prevalent among adults with psychiatric illness. Studies with forensic patients in Australia indicate that co-occurring disorders (CD) are underdiagnosed. To help determine how widespread CD underdiagnosis is in forensic populations internationally, we compared current diagnoses recorded in the clinical record with clinical evidence gathered during forensic assessment meeting DSM-IV criteria for SUD, in a Canadian sample of 638 male forensic inpatients. Among 491 with a major mental illness diagnosis, most (61%) met criteria for CD but only 19% were diagnosed as such. CD was associated with longer hospitalization, and with greater evidence of criminal history, antisociality, and risk of violent recidivism, regardless of how CD was defined. Identifying CD based on documented evidence, though, allowed for slightly greater detection of group differences. Underdiagnosing SUD has a potential impact on understanding substance use as a criminogenic treatment need in forensic mental health.

Keywords

Substance use, forensic inpatients, diagnosis, criminogenic needs

Summary of the Research

“The term co-occurring disorders (CD) is used to describe the presence of both a substance use disorder (SUD) and a psychiatric illness…Having both a mental disorder and SUD is associated with the poorest mental health status and greatest prevalence of unmet mental health needs in the Canadian population. Among psychiatric patients in Canada, the United States, and Australian, substance use increases hospitalization risk, readmission, and is associated with longer length of stay…The goal of the present study was to estimate presence of CD in a sample of forensic inpatients, and to identify the rate at which SUD is formally diagnosed” (p.145).

“In Canada’s forensic services, particularly those providing court-ordered psychiatric assessments, the presence of a major mental illness has important legal implications and may affect whether a person is fit to stand trial or is eligible for a plea of ‘not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder.’ Accurate assessment of other disorders, however, is also important in forensic practice because both recovery from mental illness and the reduction of criminal offending are important goals of intervention…In the present study, we aimed to replicate findings reported by Ogloff et al. (2004, 2015) in a Canadian sample of male forensic inpatients, based on an analysis of clinical documentation rather than conducting a clinical assessment of diagnoses ourselves for the purpose of the study” (p.146).

“We studied the presence of SUD and CD among forensic inpatients according to the current diagnosis recorded in the medical record following formal court-ordered assessment by forensic psychiatrists working with a multidisciplinary clinical team (‘current diagnosis’). Then, as a comparison, we used a standard coding form to quantify the clinical evidence gathered and documented on the medical record during this assessment in order to determine whether the DSM-IV criteria for SUD were met (‘documented evidence’). Previous research reporting that SUD is underdiagnosed among forensic patients…led us to expect that the proportion of patients with a current diagnosis of CD would be significantly lower than the proportion meeting the documented evidence criteria (Hypothesis 1)” (p.146).

“A second goal of this study was to examine the implications for forensic treatment planning, by testing the association of CD with hospital length of stay and with criminal history and recidivism risk…we expected that CD would be positively associated with length of stay in the forensic hospital (Hypothesis 2). Based on previous research indicating that forensic patients with CD had more serious and frequent offending histories than those with mental illness alone, we expected that CD would be positively associated with violent and nonviolent criminal histories, past antisociality, and a history-based measure of criminal recidivism risk (Hypothesis 3). We explored differences in Hypotheses 2 and 3 as a function of whether CD was identified by current diagnosis or documented evidence, to help elucidate the effect of under-diagnosis, if any, on understanding the profile of forensic patients with CD. The present sample was drawn from a longitudinal study of 638 men admitted to a secure forensic assessment program in the Province of Ontario, Canada, from January 2009 to December 2012” (p.146).

“A total of 491 patients had a current diagnosis of a major mental illness (i.e., psychotic or mood disorders) and the reported results were based on this sub-sample. Current diagnosis resulted in only 95 (19%) patients being identified as having both a major mental illness and a co-occurring SUD. Documented evidence resulted in an additional 205 patients being identified, for a total of 300 (61%) with CD by either definition. That is, two-thirds of patients with CD based on the DSM-IV criteria for SUD had not been diagnosed with SUD. The proportion of patients identified with CD was significantly lower using current diagnosis alone…than using documented evidence…consistent with Hypothesis 1” (p. 149).

“The mean length of stay was 152 days (SD = 261). Using either the current diagnosis or documented evidence, patients with CD stayed longer in the forensic hospital. The mean length of stay for patients without a current diagnosis of SUD was 130 days…compared with a current diagnosis of CD, M = 293…Controlling for year of admission, CD was associated with a longer length of stay…consistent with Hypothesis 2. Using documented evidence, the mean length of stay for patients without CD was 122 days…compared with patients with CD, M = 184…Controlling for year of admission, documented evidence of SUD was associated with a longer length of stay…Thus, the hypothesis that CD would be associated with longer stay was supported, whether using current diagnosis or documented evidence of CD” (p.149).

“Most patients in the total sample had prior criminal charges for nonviolent offenses (382, 60%) and half (322, 50%) had prior violent charges…First…we observed no significant differences in CLCH [Cormier-Lang Criminal History] scores between groups defined using the current diagnosis. Using documented evidence, there were differences in CLCH violent history between the CD group…and group without CD…but not for nonviolent criminal history…Second, we observed a significant overall effect of CD on criminality measures when using the current diagnosis…The CD group had higher APD [Antisocial Personality Disorder] total scores…than the no-CD group” (p.149).

Translating Research into Practice

“…Interventions targeting problematic substance use have been shown to reduce risk of reoffending in a CD population, and are associated with a general reduction in criminal behavior. Furthermore, planning for the provision of such treatment services would be aided by accurate estimates of SUD in a patient population. Once SUD is suspected, comprehensive screening and assessment of substance use is recommended, including the type of substances used, as each may have different criminogenic and treatment implications. The present study also supports calls for further development and evaluation of substance use treatment programs for forensic patients, particularly the need for integrated treatment for CD” (p.150).

“Formal diagnosis is often a needed first step to assessing appropriate clinical care, and the present study indicates that forensic assessment professionals are well positioned to make a formal diagnosis of CD, given that the necessary clinical evidence is often already gathered and documented during the assessment process. Therefore, we encourage forensic clinicians to assess substance use, and record diagnoses of SUD, regardless of the instant question before the court (e.g., criminal responsibility, competence to stand trial)…The presence of a SUD diagnosis would highlight the need for treatment and remind all practitioners involved with a patient to target this key criminogenic factor” (p.151).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“…Discovering that missed diagnoses of SUD occur even when clinical information indicating the presence of diagnostic criteria is documented on the medical record suggests a systematic problem. That is, underdiagnosis is not entirely attributable to failure to collect adequate information. Instead, it could be related to the way forensic assessment is conducted, whereby practitioners focus on specific disorders in order to answer particular legal questions…The present study raises the possibility that this problem begins with sub-optimal assessment and diagnosis…It is hoped that these diagnoses will inform care planning, result in integrated treatment of mental illness and addiction problems, and lead to improved mental health outcomes and reduced recidivism” (p.152).

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Authored by Amanda Beltrani

Amanda Beltrani is a current doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, professional decision making, and cognitive biases.

Two Early Intervention Targets for Juvenile Recidivism: Prior Victimization and Substance Use

Prior victimization significantly predicted whether a youth had future contact with the juvenile or adult criminal justice system, even while considering other factors, such as risk level and youth characteristics. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2018, Vol. 42, No. 6, 558-569

The Impact of Victimization and Mental Health Symptoms on Recidivism for Early System-Involved Juvenile Offenders

Authors

Lindsey E. Wylie, University of Nebraska Omaha
Katrina A. Rufino, University of Houston–Downtown and The Menninger Clinic, Baylor College of Medicine

Abstract

Although research has linked mental health symptoms and prior victimization to recidivism for youth on probation or in detention, little attention has been given to these risk factors for early system-involved youth. We conducted a survival/hazard model to estimate the impact of official records of abuse/neglect, crime victimization, and mental health issues (mood, anxiety, disruptive, and substance use disorders) on recidivism in a sample of 2,792 youth in a large Midwestern diversion program. Results indicated that youth with official records of abuse/neglect, person crime victimization, and property crime victimization were more likely to recidivate sooner than those without these victimization experiences (hazard ratio: 1.37, 1.42, and 1.52, respectively). Findings from the present study also demonstrated that substance use disorder was the only mental health cluster that predicted quicker time to recidivism. As one of the earliest points of entry into the juvenile justice system, diversion programs are in a unique position to address trauma from multiple types of victimization and adapt diversion programming to be responsive to each juvenile’s mental health needs.

Keywords

juvenile recidivism, juvenile diversion, mental health, victimization

Summary of the Research

“In 2016, there were approximately 856,130 juvenile arrests in the United States—many for nonviolent offenses such as larceny–theft, other assaults, drug abuse violations, liquor law violations, vandalism, disorderly conduct, and curfew/loitering. As such, the juvenile justice system is often tasked with how to address youth who commit less serious offenses. One approach is to divert them away from formal juvenile justice system involvement through diversion programs. As the gateway to the juvenile justice system, diversion programs are in a unique position to address the needs of early system-involved youth, including needs related to victimization and mental health symptoms, to reduce future involvement in the juvenile or adult criminal justice system” (p. 558).

“Developmental models of antisocial behavior propose that ‘delinquency is marked by a reliable developmental sequence of experiences,’ in which childhood experiences and social environment put children at risk for social maladjustment and criminal behavior. Specifically, studies find that experiences with victimization, broadly defined as maltreatment, adverse childhood experiences, and general crime victimization, are related to mental health issues and that both victimization and mental health issues are related to juvenile justice involvement. Although the association of victimization and mental health symptoms within juvenile justice populations are well-documented, especially within samples of serious juvenile offenders (e.g., adjudicated or incarcerated), fewer studies have examined these risk factors in a sample of early system-involved youth” (p. 558).

“The present study utilized a sample of early system-involved youth referred to a juvenile diversion program in a large Midwestern city. The purpose of this study was to examine reoffending for youth with reported experiences of victimization, as well as mental health symptoms at the time of diversion intake. Although research has examined the recidivism trajectory of youth at the deeper end of the juvenile justice system, fewer studies have linked victimization and mental health problems to recidivism in a sample of early system-involved youth. Juveniles in the diversion program are typically first-time offenders referred because of minor offenses (e.g., shoplifting, possession of marijuana, status offenses) and assessed as low to moderate risk. The present research contributes
to the larger body of literature by examining whether the association between victimization, mental health problems, and recidivism is similar for early system-involved youth to better inform diversion efforts. Furthermore, the present study extends prior research by including a broader measure of victimization that includes abuse/neglect, sexual assault, property crime, and person crimes that have been reported to law enforcement” (p. 560).

“In both the bivariate comparisons and multivariate model examining time to recidivism, abuse/neglect and person crime victimization were related to both discharge from diversion and recidivism (property offense victimization was only related to recidivism). It is unclear from this data whether victimization in these types of incidents directly relates to difficulties in completing diversion or future reoffending, or whether these rates are an artifact of exposure to system involvement because of victimization. Moreover, the relationship between being the victim of a person or property crime and recidivism, could be the product of delinquent peers or engaging in delinquent lifestyles” (p. 565).

“Our results demonstrate that two thirds of these early system-involved juveniles experience one or more mental health symptoms, with one in five reporting substance use or mood symptoms, one in three reporting anxiety symptoms, and almost half reporting disruptive disorder symptoms. In comparing these proportions to research using the same mental health assessment tool involving juveniles referred to probation and incarcerated juveniles, it appears that early system-involved juveniles may experience similar mental health symptoms as deeper end justice-involved juveniles. In examining the symptom clusters specifically, a higher proportion of our sample endorsed anxiety, mood, and disruptive symptoms, but fewer endorsed substance use symptoms when compared to McReynolds et al. (2010) and Wasserman et al. (2002). Even though this sample differed from these previous studies in specific proportions, across all studies, disruptive disorders are most common among justice-involved youth and mood disorders are least common. As such, there may be few differences between early justice-involved juveniles and later justice involved juveniles in terms of how mental health symptoms are presented” (p. 566).

“Furthermore, the results of the present study show the impact of victimization and mental health on early justice-involved youth. In support of the first hypothesis, juveniles with a history of victimization recidivated sooner than juveniles without a history of victimization. Although previous literature on mental health and recidivism in juvenile justice is mixed, the bivariate analyses and multivariate analyses demonstrated that participants endorsing substance use were more likely to recidivate, which is supported by previous research. The bivariate comparisons also found that those who endorsed the mood disorder symptoms were less likely to recidivate, which differs from studies that have not found a significant relationship between mood disorders and recidivism. One
possibility is the mood cluster acts as a protective factor against recidivism, as juveniles who are feeling depressed are less likely to engage in social activities with peers, where they would be more likely to encounter peer pressure or engage in risky shift behaviors. Furthermore, juveniles who are feeling depressed may be experiencing anhedonia and a lack of energy” (p. 566-567).

“As partially hypothesized, however, once the mental health clusters were included in the multivariate model with demographic variables, the modified risk level score, and victimization, only the substance use mental health cluster predicted time to recidivism, while the mood mental health clusters did not. Although substance use remained a significant predictor of time to recidivism even while controlling for criminogenic risk factors, youth in this sample with mental health issues did exhibit higher criminogenic risk and needs profiles as measured with the YLS/CMI compared with those without mental health issues as previous research has indicated” (p. 567)

Translating Research into Practice

“The results of the current study demonstrate the importance of addressing mental health concerns in juvenile diversion programs, which are one of the first points that youth may touch in the juvenile justice system. While research guided by the Risk-Needs- Responsivity model has generally found that only treating mental health issues is mostly ineffective, research has demonstrated that addressing mental health issues and criminogenic needs can be effective because it adheres to the responsivity principle. The data from this study demonstrate there is a relationship between mental health needs and discharge reason—namely, that youth endorsing substance use and disruptive disorders were less likely to successfully complete the diversion program. Perhaps by specifically attending to these mental health needs, diversion programs can adapt programming for youth with these issues, which may contribute to more positive outcomes such as successful completion of the program and reduced recidivism” (p. 567).

“Juvenile diversion programs embrace the mission of the juvenile justice system, namely that youth can be rehabilitated by linking them to services and that juveniles who commit less serious offenses should not be formally processed through ‘the system.’ This study provides preliminary evidence for some of the risk factors of juveniles most likely to recidivate after being connected to those services and diverted from the system. The three victimization type variables were the strongest predictors of recidivism, even while controlling for risk level and other juvenile characteristics. As such, programs should specifically focus on trauma informed programming that addresses the form of victimization a youth has experienced. Moreover, there is a need for early intervention tailored to the needs of abused, neglected, and victimized youths before they interact with the justice system or when they first enter the juvenile justice system. Early interventions should provide victimized youth with resources to increase resilience and teach positive and proactive coping strategies to minimize the effects that victimization may have on mental health functioning, and subsequent justice involvement” (p. 567-568).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Overall, the most frequent reported type of victimization was person crimes, followed by abuse/neglect and property offenses, with fewer reported incidents of sexual assault. We attempted to compare the rates of victimization in this sample to other studies, however because victimization has been operationalized in multiple ways, comparisons were not meaningful. Future research should compare whether early system-involved youth experience similar rates of victimization using official records and varying types of victimization to adjudicated and/or detained youth” (p. 565).

“Although previous research has consistently found various types of victimization do predict recidivism, better understanding how the types of victimization differ by sample characteristics and how different types of victimization impact recidivism warrants further investigation. The victimization variable was limited by using official law enforcement reports, which was likely an underestimation of victimization incidents in general. Official reports of victimization may also result in an underestimation of certain types of victimization that go unreported to law enforcement (e.g., child abuse/neglect, mutual assault). Future research may consider utilizing a range of victimization measures, including self-report data and official law enforcement records. Finally, although we know that victimization and mental health symptoms are related to recidivism, at least in bivariate comparisons, our data does not explain why these risk factors contribute to recidivism. Researchers may consider specifically testing theoretical frameworks aimed at measuring for the underlying relationships between victimization, mental illness, and reoffense” (p. 567).

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Authored by Amanda Beltrani

Amanda Beltrani is a current doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, professional decision making, and cognitive biases.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy within the Risk Need Responsivity Framework Reduces Recidivism

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) exemplifies all the components of Cognitive-Behavioral programs that have been found to reduce recidivism rates. The results of the following literature review offer preliminary evidence that DBT has the potential to reduce recidivism in criminal justice systems if it is applied within a Risk-Need-Responsivity framework. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | International Journal of Forensic Mental Health | 2018, Vol. 17, No. 1, 72-95

A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Dialectical Behavior Therapy Within Forensic Psychiatric and Correctional Settings Worldwide

Authors

Monica F. Tomlinson, Department of Psychology, The University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario Canada

Abstract

Cognitive-behavioral programs which are structured, skills-based, and risk-focused have been found to reduce recidivism rates by up to 55%. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) exemplifies all of these components, and has been rapidly adapted and implemented in correctional and forensic psychiatric facilities worldwide to reduce recidivism. Regrettably, the widespread implementation of adapted DBT has outpaced the research on its effectiveness for this purpose. Thus, it is currently unclear whether these programs are meeting the rehabilitation needs of these systems. In the following article, a qualitative systematic literature review of all DBT programs within forensic psychiatric and correctional populations using the PRISMA statement guidelines is presented, along with a detailed exploration of how these programs align with best practices in offender rehabilitation, and whether they are effective in reducing recidivism risk. Results offer very preliminary evidence that DBT has the potential to reduce recidivism risk in criminal justice systems if applied within a Risk-Need-Responsivity framework.

Keywords

Criminal justice policy, dialectical behavioral therapy, DBT, offender rehabilitation, systematic literature review

Summary of the Research

“Prototypical programs designed to reduce recidivism in adolescent and adult forensic populations include Reasoning and Rehabilitation, Moral Reconation Therapy, and Aggression Replacement Training. These interventions focus on restructuring cognitions related to antisocial behavior…and introducing morally-based, pro-social ways of thinking and behaving…Meta-analytic findings from methodologically rigorous outcome studies on these (and other similar) interventions indicate that CBT programs are significantly more effective in reducing recidivism when they have additional program elements to standard CBT…and when they include higher numbers of sessions…While there is strong evidence for the continued success of these programs…researchers have also been cognizant of rapid developments in third-wave approaches, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)…DBT already includes several of the additional components of effective CBT programs…and it has shown its effectiveness among difficult-to-treat populations…Personality disorders and substance use disorders are specifically important to treat in forensic settings…as they are significantly associated with recidivism” (p.72-73).

“Although this connection has not been made explicit in the literature, DBT also theoretically aligns with the most prominent and evidence-based risk reduction model in the recidivism literature, the Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) model. The RNR model posits that offenders should receive interventions that target the most acute risk factors for crime, that are matched in intensity to the person’s level of risk, and that are responsive to their individual needs…given the significant adaptations made to these programs, a quantitative review of current findings continues to be premature. As a result, a systematic qualitative review of DBT programs within forensic and correctional facilities is needed to determine whether the DBT programs currently in existence are being implemented within best practices for forensic rehabilitation, according to the RNR model, and whether there is any evidence that these programs are successful in reducing criminogenic needs, and subsequently, recidivism” (p.73-74).

“Alterations made to DBT programs within forensic settings included changes to the length of the program, the components of DBT used…and the materials presented during the skills training sessions…Arguably the most significant changes discussed in extant implementations of DBT within forensic settings pertained to the changes in skills training materials…For practical reasons, many implementations changed the wording of the skills manuals to have simpler language…less jargon…more gender neutral language…and more activities that apply to a custodial environment…Many implementations integrated crime review or crime cycle analysis components where participants would specifically discuss the factors that contributed to their past crimes…These additions to the DBT protocol were aimed at understanding what risk factors related to criminal behavior and how to ensure that crime is prevented in the future” (p.82).

“…The emotion regulation and distress tolerance modules also have theoretical support for targeting the criminogenic need, substance use. These modules specifically teach individuals to develop healthy patterns of reducing heightened emotionality and self-soothing, which may lower their propensity to use substances as a way of managing heightened emotions through self-medication…Reducing these needs may increase the chances that individuals will engage in prosocial activities, maintain employment, and seek further education, thus reducing the criminogenic needs lack of academic achievement and antisocial leisure activities…There is some evidence to suggest institutions are being sensitive to the gender-specific criminogenic needs of women in forensic populations, but not necessarily to those of men. The ‘responsivity’ principle of the RNR model asserts that rehabilitative programs should be tailored to the individuals’ learning styles, motivation, strengths, and abilities…The present literature on DBT programs within forensic settings suggests that programs are being adapted to better target criminogenic needs and are generally being delivered within an RNR framework” (p.88-89).

“There is also some evidence that program fidelity was related to reduction in criminogenic needs. Across studies, the programs that adhered more faithfully to the program elements of DBT (e.g., skills training, individual counseling, consultation groups, and between-session coaching) were more effective in reducing criminogenic needs, such as poor impulse control, hostility, anger, emotional dysregulation compared to programs that did not implement all program elements of DBT. Furthermore, the programs that were applied faithfully within an RNR framework…were associated with reductions in institutional defiance and aggression more than programs did not adhere to the RNR framework” (p.90).

“…Overall, the findings from this review provide some indication that adapted implementations of DBT are able to reduce both risk and recidivism, and that programs which most successfully accomplish this goal adhered closely to standard DBT protocol (in terms of their program components) and fit within an RNR network” (p.90).

Translating Research into Practice

“…Thus, information on individuals’ risk level should be used to determine who participates in DBT, and to adapt programs to correspond with the varying needs of individuals with different risk levels…The present review of DBT programs within forensic settings demonstrates that forensic institutions and evaluating their programs. Organizations…have written extensively on their standardized adaptations and preliminary evaluations. Many of these organizations have developed their own DBT manuals to better meet the needs of their populations. These manuals have integrated best practices for offender rehabilitation and incorporated the wealth of research on risk and rehabilitation…These evaluations could also evaluate the theoretical ‘active ingredients’ or ‘mechanisms of change’ in forensic populations” (p.87-90).

“Future research in this area is needed to improve the quality of studies, the size of research samples, and the fidelity with which programs are implemented. Such research can help lead criminal justice policy into an ear of prison reform that has the unprecedented luxury of standing upon empirically supported approaches to offender rehabilitation” (p.91).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“While all existing studies on DBT in forensic settings focused on emotional dysregulation, it is important to note that Dr. Thomas Lynch and colleagues have recently proposed a new form of DBT called Radically Open DBT (RO-DBT) for emotional overregulation. These researchers have adapted the biosocial theory to suggest that gene-environment interactions causing heightened threat sensitivity and diminished reward sensitivity lead some individuals to view mistakes and intolerable and unwavering self-control as necessary…RO-DBT focuses on increasing emotional expression, increasing disinhibition, increasing interpersonal experiences (including healthy interpersonal conflict), and decreasing behaviors associated with perfectionism” (p.91)

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Authored by Amber Lin

Amber Lin is a volunteer in Dr. Zapf’s research lab at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She graduated from New York University in 2013 with a B.A. (honors) and is a second year Masters student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her research interests include forensic assessment, competency to stand trial, and the refinement of instruments used to assess the psychological states of criminal defendants.

Predeliberation Juror Discussion Leads to Bias in Jury Deliberation

Discussion of trial evidence by jurors, prior to jury deliberation, can introduce a systematic bias in jury verdicts. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2018, Vol. 42, No. 5, 413-426

Should Jurors Be Allowed to Discuss Trial Evidence Before Deliberation?: New Research Evidence

Authors

Norbert L. Kerr, Michigan State University and Claremont Graduate University
Jiin Jung, Claremont Graduate University

Abstract

Traditionally, jurors are not permitted to discuss trial evidence with one another prior to jury deliberation. Allowing such discussions, at least in civil trials, is a jury innovation that has become increasingly popular. Prior field research has generally supported the assumption that this innovation is benign and, in particular, introduces no systematic bias in jury verdicts. These issues are examined again here within an experimental jury simulation study. The opportunity for predeliberation juror discussion (PJD) between the plaintiff and defense cases-in-chief was manipulated. The results revealed that PJD biased jury verdicts. The nature of this bias was not, as commonly suspected, a commitment to evidence heard prior to PJD, but rather a greater weight placed on evidence heard following the PJD. One good explanation of this bias was that jurors acted as if evidence heard prior to PJD had “already been covered” during the PJD, and so primary attention was given to post-PJD evidence in jury deliberations. Little evidence was found to corroborate several other purported benefits or drawbacks of PJD.

Keywords

jury, predeliberation discussion, jury innovation, bias, recency effect

Summary of the Research

“Traditionally, the first real opportunity that jurors have to discuss a trial’s evidence with one another occurs during jury deliberations at the end of the trial. Indeed, jurors are routinely instructed at the outset of the trial that they must not discuss the trial evidence with anyone— fellow jurors, friends, or even a spouse—before such deliberations begin. The primary reason for this prohibition is a concern that such discussions could lead jurors to make up their minds about the key issues in the case prematurely—that is, before they have heard all the evidence or been instructed on the law governing their verdicts” (p. 413).

“However, in the last few years a number of states (e.g., Arizona, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan) have relaxed this prohibition, permitting jurors to discuss the evidence prior to deliberation under certain conditions. For example, in Arizona civil trials jurors are now permitted to discuss the evidence during trial recesses, but only among themselves in the jury room and only when all jurors are present. Furthermore, jurors are cautioned that they must not form final opinions about any fact or about the outcome of the case until they have heard and considered all of the trial evidence. A number of other states (e.g., California, North Dakota) have actively considered making similar changes to their procedures. Others (e.g., Anderson, 2002) have called for permitting such discussion to occur in criminal or military juries as well. And there are indications that even in states where predeliberation discussion is prohibited, judges are allowing it if counsel consent” (p. 413-414).

“The general structure of trials require that one side present its case before the other—defendants cannot answer charges until the plaintiff/prosecution first present their case. If jurors have heard one side (e.g., the plaintiff’s) first, and then discussed the case before hearing the other side (e.g., the defendant’s), prejudgment and early commitment would appear to advantage the plaintiff in civil trials (and the prosecution in criminal trials). This reasoning has reasonably made a prediction of a type of “primacy effect” (viz., more verdicts for the side presenting first, the plaintiff or prosecution) in prior PJD [predeliberation juror discussion] research the most popular alternative to the null hypothesis (i.e., same verdicts in juries permitted and forbidden to discuss). But an opposite, “recency effect” could also be predicted. For example, if jurors tended to discount, ignore, or underweigh in final deliberations evidence presented prior to their discussions (which would tend to favor the side that presents first) for any of several reasons (e.g., “we’ve already covered that”; more confidence in one’s evaluation of evidence after an opportunity to socially validate one’s understanding of evidence heard prior to discussion), then a recency/prodefense effect would result” (p. 415).

“Both of these predictions also make a simplifying but questionable assumption—that each side’s prospects for winning the trial hinge primarily on the evidence presented in each side’s case-inchief (i.e., during the early plaintiff/prosecution case or the late defense case). Although this may often be true, at the end of the trial it is not the relative strength evidence presented early versus late that is crucial, but rather the relative strength of the totality of each side’s supporting evidence that should determine the trial outcome. This means that a primacy effect— greater weight placed on information presented early—need not result in more proplaintiff/prosecution verdicts, and that a recency effect— greater weight placed on information presented late—need not result in more prodefense verdicts. For example, suppose in a civil trial the plaintiff’s case-in-chief is much weaker than the defense’s casein- chief. A primacy effect might manifest itself as highlighting the weakness of the plaintiff’s case, and hence lead to more prodefense verdicts. Conversely, a recency effect might result in more proplaintiff / prosecution verdicts if the defense case-in-chief were extremely weak” (p. 415-416).

“The primary objective of this article was to explore whether predeliberation juror discussion (PJD) is verdict neutral—that is, whether such discussion has no systematic impact on juror/jury verdicts, as the prior literature has suggested, or whether such discussion does have some impact. Our results clearly indicated that PJD is not verdict neutral, at least under the conditions examined here. The impact of PJD on verdicts was significant and strong (e.g., overall, the difference in jury pro-plaintiff-verdict rates between those denied and permitted PJD was 26.5%). However, the effect of PJD was not a simple proplaintiff/proprosecution bias, as has been suspected in most prior commentary and research. Rather, the effect of PJD was a type of recency effect— the evidence presented later in the trial (and after the jury’s PJD) had relatively greater impact on the jury’s verdict than the evidence presented early in the trial (and prior to the jury’s PJD). This kind of recency effect would not produce a simple proplaintiff or prodefense bias unless the timing of evidence (early vs. late in the trial, and hence, usually before vs. after PJD) was strongly correlated with which side the evidence favored (plaintiff vs. defendant). It may well be true that the strongest plaintiff evidence often appears early (during the plaintiff’s case-in-chief) and the strongest defense evidence often appears late (during the defense’s case-in-chief). But it is also quite possible for the opposite to occur—strong defense evidence appearing early or strong plaintiff evidence appearing late—or for there to be no clear correlation between timing and side favored. If across all trials, this correlation were weak or absent, we would not expect any net effect of PJD on verdict, which is just the general pattern observed in the prior field research. Our experimental design permitted us to tease apart the timing of strong evidence (early vs. late) and the side favored by that evidence (plaintiff vs. defense). And our results suggest that the net effect of permitting PJD will be to bias verdicts in favor of whichever side would profit more from the jury paying greater attention and giving greater weight to the evidence presented after PJD than before PJD” (p. 422).

Translating Research into Practice

“For the sake of argument, let us momentarily assume that the recency bias found here will occur for a wide range of civil (or criminal) trials; what might be done to minimize it? If it could be shown that some ways of timing PJD were less likely to produce the bias (e.g., regular and frequent PJDs), perhaps juries might be encouraged or required to time their discussions accordingly. However, the evidence for such an ideal patterning of discussions would have to be compelling to justify such an intrusive remedy. Judges instructions might describe the bias and caution the jury not to consider evidence discussed during a PJD session as “already covered” and hence, worth less consideration during their final deliberations. Unfortunately, the research evidence on the effectiveness of such cautionary judicial instructions is not encouraging. Pending the research required to understand the full impact of permitting PJDs, and the effectiveness of alternative remedies, the safest option would appear to be to follow the long-standing tradition of prohibiting PJD” (p. 424).

“There are many trial practices which jurors dislike, such as being denied information on a defendant’s past criminal history, being denied access to sidebar conversations, or reaching verdicts without knowing exactly what sentence might be imposed. But in these and many other practices, the goal of unbiased jury decision making trumps juror preferences. Our results suggest that prohibiting predeliberation juror discussion might well be another such practice, and that the rush to implement this jury innovation should be reconsidered” (p. 425).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“An ever-present issue for experimental jury simulation studies like this one is whether the key findings would be materially different under more realistic conditions (e.g., a more representative jurors; with a live trial; if the verdicts determined tangible consequences for the litigants). Fortunately, there is practically no evidence that results from mock jury simulation studies are materially altered by increasing realismalong such dimensions. A separate issue is the particular form the PJD took in our study—a brief discussion of the evidence between the two cases in chief. Of course, there are many other forms that PJD might take in actual trials, and some of these seem likely to modify the recency effect we observed. For example, the closer the last juror discussion occurred to the start or the end of the trial, the less impact a greater focus on the postdiscussion evidence should have. At the limits, all/none of the trial evidence would remain to be heard if there were only a single discussion at the start/end of the trial. And the length of a trial or of a jury’s discussion might well affect any recency bias; for example, the shorter the discussion, the harder it would be to maintain that the jury had “already covered” all the evidence presented prediscussion. Also, for good experimental reasons, our mock juries only considered trials in which the cases-in-chief for both sides were nicely balanced. But if there were a strong contrast between the strength of the plaintiff’s and the defense’s cases, the recency bias might be altered—it might be attenuated / bolstered if the defense case were patently weaker/stronger than the plaintiff case. Clearly, much more research is required to settle such external validity questions” (p. 424).

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Authored by Amanda Beltrani

Amanda Beltrani is a current doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, professional decision making, and cognitive biases.

General Intelligence Is a More Robust Predictor of Competency Restoration than a Measure of Externalizing Behaviors

The present study evaluated whether specific aspects of psychopathological constructs assessed by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 Restructured Form (MMPI-2-RF), and specific cognitive abilities assessed by the Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (WASI/WASI-II), were associated with length of competency restoration among 344 male pretrial defendants hospitalized in a maximum security forensic psychiatric hospital. Higher Juvenile Conduct Problems (JCP) scores were associated with restoration within 90 days, and Antisocial Behavior (RC4) predicted restoration status at 90 days. No MMPI-2-RF or WASI/WASI-II scales predicted restoration status at 180 days when controlling for age. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | International Journal of Forensic Mental Health | 2018, Vol. 17, No. 2, 167-180

Personality, Psychiatric, and Cognitive Predictors of Length of Time for Competency to Stand Trial Restoration

Authors

Laura M. Grossi, M.A., School of Psychology, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Teaneck, NJ, USA
Debbie Green, Ph.D., School of Psychology, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Teaneck, NJ, USA
Melanie Schneider, M.A., School of Psychology, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Teaneck, NJ, USA
Brian Belfi, Psy.D., Department of Psychology, Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center, New York, NY USA
Shanah Segal, Psy.D., Department of Psychology, Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center, New York, NY USA

Abstract

Certain defendant characteristics, including psychiatric diagnosis, externalizing problems, and cognitive deficits, are associated with longer periods of restoration of competency to stand trial and general lack of treatment success. Prior research has called for a more detailed examination of symptom-level differences between defendants rapidly restored to competency and those who require lengthier treatment for competency restoration. The present study evaluated whether specific aspects of psychopathological constructs assessed by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 Restructured Form (MMPI-2-RF), and specific cognitive abilities assessed by the Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (WASI/WASI-II), were associated with length of competency restoration among 344 male pretrial defendants hospitalized at a maximum security forensic psychiatric hospital. Higher Juvenile Conduct Problems (JCP) scores were associated with restoration within 90 days, and Antisocial Behavior (RC4) predicted restoration status at 90 days; no MMPI-2-RF or WASI/WASI-II scales predicted restoration status at 180 days when controlling for age. Overall, results suggested that externalizing behaviors are among factors that may play a role in predicting restoration status at select time points.

Keywords

Competency to stand trial, competency restoration, symptoms, MMPI-2-RF, WASI-II

Summary of the Research

“In the United States, defendants facing legal charges must be competent to stand trial (CST) in order to move forward with their legal proceedings…Accurate evaluations of CST are imperative, as the courts generally defer to the opinions of forensic evaluators with regard to the competency of defendant…Although prior research has examined the extent to which defendant characteristics including psychopathology, personality, and intellectual abilities predict length of stay and treatment completion in other settings, this approach has not yet been used with regard to length of treatment for competency restoration. The current study examined whether the MMPI-2-RF and WASI/WASI-II have clinical utility in predicting the length of time that IST defendants undergo restoration of competency to stand trial, operationalized as the number of days from admission to the hospital to the date in which they passed a formal CST evaluation” (p. 167-170).

“We hypothesized that scores on the MMPI-2-RF scales assessing problems in thinking and externalizing problems would be positively associated with length of time for competency restoration, with the length of restoration variable defined (1) continuously, reflecting the number of days from hospital admission until a passed formal CST evaluation, and (2) dichotomously, representing restoration status at 90 days and 180 days…we additionally hypothesized that composite scores (FSIQ-2) and subtest scores (Vocabulary and Matrix Reasoning) of the WASI/WASI-II would be negatively associated with length of time for restoration of competency to stand trial…Finally, the present study explored whether reasons for MMPI-2-RF profile un-interpretability were predictive of time to achieve competency restoration” (p.170).

“Analyses examining whether IST and CST defendants could be differentiated at 90 days based on MMPI-2-RF and WASI/WASI-II scores indicated that only JCP scores significantly differentiated those who were restored and those who were not, although RC4 approached significance. However, both the results of JCP and RC4 analyses were contrary to prediction, with those defendants who remained IST endorsing fewer conduct-related problems in child and adolescence, and fewer antisocial beliefs, than those who were CST at 90 days…the hypothesis that MMPI-2-RF and WASI/WASI-II scales would be predictive of restoration status at 180 days was not supported…Overall, exploratory findings suggest that estimated general intelligence and level of education may be more robust predictors of requisite time for competency restoration, such that low intelligence is associated with greater time until competency is restored” (p.176-177).

“Further, a large proportion of defendants were excluded due to invalid or inconsistent MMPI-2-RF profiles (42.4%), which calls into question the generalizability of the findings for the major analyses to the broader population of IST pretrial defendants…Thus, the exclusion criteria may have obscured our ability to assess fully the combined impact of cognitive abilities and personality characteristics on competency restoration. The exclusion criteria used in this study were consistent with prior research examining treatment adherence and completion in other settings but may be too stringent considering the severity of mental illness in the present sample…” (p.178).

Translating Research into Practice

“As measures of behavioral instability and oppositionality (i.e., scales nested under BXD within the MMPI-2-RF interpretation hierarchy), the JCP and RC4 scales likely have implications for management in the forensic psychiatric hospital, in terms of reflecting chronic behavior problems and lack of cooperation…Instead, the ability of JCP to differentiate IST and CST defendants at a time point as early as 90 days may indicate that forensic psychiatric hospitals are well-equipped to work with defendants with antisocial characteristics and to ensure that legal and hospital resources are allocated appropriately. Furthermore, these scales may be indicators of familiarity with the legal system, and thus better response to psychoeducational aspects of competency restoration. Alternatively, these scales may serve to differentiate patients whose traits are more criminogenic, and less psychiatric in nature, and thus require a lesser degree of pharmacological intervention than their peers…” (p.176-177).

“Overall, exploratory findings suggest that estimated general intelligence and level of education may be more robust predictors of requisite time for competency restoration, such that low intelligence is associated with greater time until competency is restored…These findings raise important implications for clinicians, who can quickly assess estimated general intelligence, gaining information regarding a defendant’s relative time for competency restoration, without the administration of more extensive cognitive tests or other additional measures” (p.177).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“…Both the results of the JCP and RC4 analyses were contrary to prediction, with those defendants who remained IST endorsing fewer conduct-related problems in childhood and adolescence, and fewer antisocial beliefs, than those who were CST at 90 days. These findings…are inconsistent with literature indicating that elevated RC4 and JCP scores…predict treatment failure in non-forensic contexts. The achievement of competency is not necessarily comparable to treatment success in other therapeutic contexts, and this finding may be interpreted in a straightforward manner, to mean that different personality characteristics have different predictive utility in different contexts. Notable tendencies toward antisocial or criminogenic behaviors…may lead evaluators to believe that a defendant in this context (i.e., a maximum security forensic hospital) is more likely to possess competency-related abilities…which would not be typically perceived as beneficial in non-forensic clinical contexts (e.g., civil hospital)” (p.176).

“Given the exclusion rate, future research might examine the ability of tests of personality and intelligence to predict time until competency restoration using a much larger sample. Larger samples might include female participants, as the present findings are not necessarily generalizable to the broader population of incompetent pretrial defendants. With a much larger sample, future research might examine whether elevations on specific scales…are predictive of time for competency restoration, as opposed to relatively high or low scores. Such an approach would be more informative for clinicians, who could then interpret scores above or below a particular threshold as indicative of alternative treatment…” (p.178).

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Authored by Amanda Beltrani

Amanda Beltrani is a current doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, professional decision making, and cognitive biases.

Self-Reported anti-social attitudes may not be a valid indicator of risk of reoffending .. and more

Self-reported within-treatment change in antisocial attitudes may not provide valid information about change in offenders’ risk of reoffending as a result of completing treatment. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2018, Vol. 42, No. 4, 321-335

Within-Treatment Change in Antisocial Attitudes and Reoffending in a Large Sample of Custodial and Community Offenders

Authors

Mark V. A. Howard, Corrective Services New South Wales, Australia
Gerard van Doorn, Corrective Services New South Wales, Australia

Abstract

This study tested evidence for antisocial attitudes as a mechanism of change in offender treatment by examining whether the Measures of Antisocial Attitudes and Associates (MCAA) and within-treatment change in scores on this scale have predictive validity for risk of reoffending. Pretreatment and posttreatment scores on the MCAA were obtained from a large sample of 1,858 offenders who had completed offender treatment programs while in custody (n = 854) or in the community (n = 1,004). Individual within-treatment change was calculated with simple difference scores as well as categorizations of clinically significant change. Results showed that discrete scores on a number of MCAA measures were associated with reoffending hazard at pretreatment and at posttreatment. Change over treatment was also highly significant at the group level whereas a modest proportion of offenders achieved clinically significant change. None of the measures of within-treatment change were significantly associated with reoffending, however. The results suggest that self-reported antisocial attitudes may not be a valid indicator of causal mechanisms of treatment or change in offenders’ risk of reoffending as a result of completing treatment.

Keywords

antisocial attitudes, recidivism, within-treatment change, mechanism of change, clinical significance

Summary of the Research

“In recent years a substantial body of research has developed to support the effectiveness of offender treatment in reducing reoffending. Meta-analytic reviews have also indicated that offender treatment is increasingly effective when it adheres to principles of the RNR [risk-need-responsivity] model. However, there has been surprisingly little empirical study to examine how treatment reduces reoffending, or more specifically to validate the role of dynamic risk factors as mechanisms of change in accordance with the need principle. To understand the causal effect of within-treatment change in dynamic risk factors, it is necessary to establish that the factor has a predictive relationship with reoffending; that treatment induces change in the factor; and that there is an association between factor-specific change in treatment and reoffending outcomes” (p. 321-322).

“There is an identified need for further research to assess mechanisms of change within offender treatment programs. Understanding the relationships between change in dynamic risk factors and reoffending outcomes is critical to identify the content and processes of interventions and how targets may be prioritized in the development and delivery of programs. It is also important to better understand processes of individual within-treatment change because not all offenders will require treatment for specific risk factors and not all offenders will achieve change as a result of treatment, which has implications both for identification of target samples and interpretation of treatment outcome evaluations. Research into treatment effects of offender programs typically evaluates average group-level differences relative to controls and, therefore, tends to be insensitive to intraindividual dynamics. In addition, while some studies have examined the predictive validity and within-treatment change on the [Measures of Criminal Attitudes and Associates] MCAA, further research is required to integrate and improve the statistical rigor of analyses relevant to mechanisms of change” (p. 323).

“The aim of this study was to examine relationships between self-reported antisocial attitudes, individual change in attitudes over the course of treatment, and reoffending outcomes. To achieve this we developed a large and diverse sample of offenders who had completed pretreatment and posttreatment administrations of the MCAA as part of their participation in treatment while serving sentences in custody or in the community. This study sought to address three conditions that have been identified as necessary for a putative mechanism of change, including: (a) discrete scores on the MCAA have temporally relevant relationships with reoffending outcomes; (b) scores on the MCAA change over the course of treatment; and (c) change in scores over treatment correspond with differences in reoffending outcomes” (p. 323).

“A secondary aim of the study was to examine patterns of responses on the MCAA and their associations with reoffending separately for offenders who completed self-reports of antisocial attitudes when in custody and those who were assessed in the community. Offenders in the community have closer temporal and contextual proximity to risk factors at the time of treatment that may influence the extent to which their reported antisocial attitudes and change in attitudes transfer to reoffending outcomes. This difference may partially account for findings that treatment in the community tends to have larger effect sizes compared with treatment in custody. On the balance of the existing literature we hypothesized that associations between MCAA scores and reoffending, and between within-treatment change and reoffending, would be more pronounced when assessed for offenders in the community compared with offenders in custody” (p. 323).

“The results of this study showed that measures of antisocial attitudes derived from the MCAA meet a number of conditions for being mechanisms of change in offender treatment, including predictive validity for reoffending outcomes and evidence for significant change over the course of treatment. Within-treatment change in MCAA scores did not correspond with change in risk of reoffending, however. This pattern of results indicates that while discrete scores on the MCAA can contribute to an understanding of an offender’s risk of reoffending and case management needs, change in scores over treatment are not a reliable indicator of how the offender’s risk has been influenced by participation in treatment. We do not propose to conclude that change in antisocial attitudes is not a meaningful target for offender interventions or causal factor in the relationship between treatment and reoffending. However, the findings add to those of other research on offense supportive attitudes in highlighting the ongoing empirical challenges with measuring and identifying such dynamic risk factors as mechanisms of change. Further research into factors that influence offender responding over the course of treatment and potential change to methods of assessing offenders is required. At present, and in regards to the MCAA, it appears that the search for the ‘Holy Grail in assessing offender change’ continues” (p. 331-332).

Translating Research into Practice

“The results of within-treatment change analyses were disappointing, particularly considering that in contrast to some previous studies of offender change, discrete scores on the MCAA were found to have predictive validity for reoffending in our sample. Taken together, it appears that the MCAA did not meet this critical condition for a mechanism of change because the magnitude or nature of change over the course of treatment did not have a meaningful relationship with reoffending. One interpretation of the results is that change in MCAA scores reflects actual offender change in dynamic risk factors associated with antisocial attitudes; however, these factors do not ultimately have an effect on likelihood of reoffending. The outcome of recidivism is one of multiple determinants and change in antisocial attitudes may be necessary but not sufficient for a reduction in risk to occur. For example, treatment may act to simply reduce antisocial attitudes without developing compensatory prosocial attitudes that facilitate desistance over time. Similarly, discussed the potential that antisocial attitudes act as a proxy for other individual propensities that affect the likelihood of antisocial behavior under conditions of risk. A related interpretation is that change in antisocial attitudes contributes too small an effect size to influence outcomes, particularly given the insensitivity of formal measures of reoffending. However, in this case it is uncertain why discrete measures of antisocial attitudes would be independently predictive of reoffending. It is also noted that the EQUIPS programs contain multiple modules that address a range of general and offense-specific risk factors that include but are not
limited to antisocial attitudes” (p. 330).

“Perhaps a more parsimonious explanation of the results is that change in MCAA scores between pretreatment and posttreatment may be attributed to measurement factors that are not related to underlying attitude change. In particular, different contextual and temporal influences between pretreatment and posttreatment may affect reporting of antisocial attitudes. Declines in antisocial attitudes following completion of treatment may represent transient effects of treatment or temporarily activated sentiments that do not persist over time. A study by Polaschek and Dixon (2001) showed that while both recidivists and nonrecidivists reported significant reductions in anger over the course of treatment, only nonrecidivists continued to report those changes at follow-up whereas recidivists showed a regression in scores. In addition, completion of treatment is likely to be associated with demand effects that incentivize prosocial responding, such as efforts to demonstrate successful outcomes of treatment or the development of a working alliance with therapists, which are not present before treatment. Offenders are often motivated to participate in treatment for external gains such as receiving parole that may be contingent on evidence of positive treatment progress” (p. 330).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“There is the possibility that offenders in the community have different contextual influences on their responding and likelihood of response bias compared with those in custody. However, an examination of the data suggests that the results may be most likely attributed to differences in sample characteristics. Offenders in custody had a wider distribution of MCAA scores and were more likely to reoffend compared with those in the community, which would be expected to influence the power of measures of association. Offenders in custody also reported more dysfunctional antisocial attitudes on average compared with those in the community. There are indications that reoffending risk and related dynamic risk factors such as antisocial attitudes have a negative association with social desirability bias and impression management response bias in particular. This suggests that as offender risk increases the relationship between responses and underlying latent constructs may be less prone to these sources of measurement error. The results emphasize the importance of sampling factors, including selection of offenders according to the extent and homogeneity of criminogenic need, when assessing the psychometric properties of measures of dynamic risk factors. It is noted that whereas the only previous study of within-treatment change on the MCAA was conducted with offenders in the community, available data to support the predictive validity of the MCAA for reoffending have been derived from custodial samples. Conversely, the results suggest that proximity factors such as time in custody between assessment and release may have had only limited influence on the predictive utility of the MCAA” (p. 329).

“There is evidence to suggest that offender self-reports of antisocial attitudes can convey information about risk of reoffending that is robust to response biases, including but not limited to findings for the predictive validity of MCAA measures reported here. However, it is less clear how the context of assessment has an influence on the nature or extent of responding bias. The influence of context specific socially desirable responding may explain findings that discrete posttreatment scores on self-report measures have weaker relationships with reoffending compared to pretreatment scores. The relative contributions of trait-like response tendencies and contextual demands to socially desirability bias is a subject of ongoing discussion, with evidence for the role of both factors. We are currently conducting research to explore how changing context affects offenders’ self-reported antisocial attitudes over multiple administrations across consecutive treatment programs. Further study is also required to better understand and implement procedures under which within-treatment change can be best assessed to minimize response bias” (p. 330-331).

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Amanda Beltrani

Amanda Beltrani is a current doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, professional decision making, and cognitive biases.

Parents’ understanding of the child welfare system

Although parent’s understanding of the juvenile dependency system is crucial to the case outcome, the current study shows that their understanding is limited and not appropriately assessed, which may lead to uninformed decisions that bear high costs to the families. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2018, Vol. 24, No. 4, 459–473

Parents’ Understanding of the Juvenile Dependency System

Authors

Kyndra C. Cleveland, Vanderbilt University
Jodi A. Quas, University of California–Irvine

Abstract

A great deal of attention has been devoted to documenting the legal experiences and knowledge of children involved in the juvenile dependency system (i.e., child protection system). Such insight is critical to inform policies that profoundly affect children and families. However, the experiences and knowledge of another population involved in the dependency system are also critically important—namely those of the children’s parents. Parents’ understanding has enormous potential to affect their behaviors, ongoing decisions in the case, and the eventual case outcome. In the current study, 105 parents involved in ongoing juvenile dependency cases were interviewed about their general and case-specific dependency understanding, including their understanding of commonly used dependency terms, the role of dependency professionals, and the purpose of key hearings. Parents, on average, evidenced a limited or partial general understanding of the system. More than half of the sample demonstrated a limited understanding of the judge’s specific decisions in their hearings, with 12% demonstrating no knowledge of the decisions rendered. Parents at particular risk for low understanding included fathers, those who were new to the system, those with no prior dependency contact as children, and those from low educational and minority backgrounds. Practical implications and recommendations for family dependency policy, including the need for a standard assessment of parent understanding and programs to improve knowledge, are discussed.

Keywords

demographic, juvenile dependency, knowledge, parent, understanding

Summary of the Research

“When children experience neglect, abuse, or other forms of maltreatment at the hands of their parents, the entire family can become involved with social services, and eventually, the juvenile dependency system. This system has a primary goal of ensuring children’s safety and well-being, while also providing services to parents to help them improve upon the challenges that led to the initial social service and legal intervention. For children and parents, being a part of the juvenile dependency process is lifechanging: The decisions rendered throughout the case determine the amount of contact parents and children have with one another; what rehabilitative services are delivered, to whom, and for how long; and the permanent legal guardianship arrangement for children that will last into adulthood. […] We use the formal term, juvenile dependency system, to refer to the legal system that oversees cases of child abuse and neglect. Other related terms may include child welfare, child protection, or foster care.” (p. 459)

“Despite the gravity of the decisions made in juvenile dependency cases and the effects of those decisions for the entire family, virtually nothing is known about the extent to which all relevant participants in a case understand what is happening. […] Studying children’s understanding and experiences is critical. However, parents are also directly and personally involved, and their understanding is perhaps equally critical, at least for the progression and eventual outcome of the case and, as a consequence, for the children’s and family’s future.” (p. 459)

“From a practical and theoretical perspective, insight into parents’ understanding of the dependency system is relevant to a number of ongoing debates. These include debates concerning parental rights, family autonomy, and whether formal standards need to be established to ensure adequate participation in what is often viewed as a less formal system. Theoretical debates exist as well, concerning how court experiences shape perceptions of legal legitimacy and fairness, and the psychological health and well-being of participants in legal cases. In light of these debates, as well as the undeniable gravity of the decisions rendered in dependency cases, we conducted a much-needed investigation of parents’ legal understanding of the dependency system. We specifically examined how well parents involved in ongoing juvenile dependency cases understand the dependency court process generally (i.e., their ability to define common dependency terms and answer questions about a hypothetical dependency case) and their case specifically (i.e., comprehension of the judge’s decision in a hearing that they just attended). We also examined whether general and case-specific understanding were related, and whether demographic and individual-level factors (e.g., race, education, income) predicted legal understanding.” (pp. 459–460)

“Recent national data indicate that there are 4.1 million reports of child maltreatment in the U.S. annually. Of these, 42% are screened out because of insufficient evidence, leaving child protective services (CPS) with 2.3 million reports to investigate further. […] Upon investigation of these allegations, some families may receive in-home services from CPS. However, if it is determined that the maltreatment is severe or the child appears to be at risk of imminent harm, CPS will submit a petition to refer the child to the juvenile dependency system. Once a dependency case is filed, the child may be removed from home and placed in a temporary out-of-home placement. Parents may secure their own legal representation, or if they cannot afford to do so, the court may assign them an attorney. If both parents are involved, each typically has individual representation. Another attorney is assigned to the child(ren). Each attorney is required to represent the interests of their assigned party.” (p. 460)

“Although juvenile dependency cases have a common underlying structure, there are also highly variable components, players, and procedures. In addition, court hearings and documents are imbued with legal jargon (e.g., de facto, concurrent planning) that can be difficult to comprehend, especially among individuals with low educational attainment, like many dependency-involved parents. All of this, combined with the complexity of the system and the multiple variations in the case, likely makes the dependency court process particularly difficult to understand for the population involved. If parents do not understand what is happening, their responsibilities, the roles of the professionals with whom they interact, the purpose of hearings, and the court orders, it is highly unlikely that parents will be able to comply with court mandates, putting reunification in jeopardy.” (p. 461)

“Current legislation regarding dependency cases is largely guided by the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which aims to improve the timeliness of child permanency (i.e., safe and stable homes for children). […] relevance to the current study, parents are entitled to constitutionally afforded due process rights and rights related to their legal relationships with their children. […] Central to these rights is the need to understand the legal process, its potential consequences, and what is occurring in each hearing. In light of the central need for legal understanding when navigating a dependency case, it is perhaps surprising that there is no “legal right” to a basic understanding of the dependency system and one’s case. In criminal and some civil cases, competency standards exist to safeguard defendants who may otherwise have a poor understanding of the legal system and to facilitate defendants’ effective participation in their case. […] No such standards or expectations exist for parents in dependency cases, and in fact, until the present research, the level of these legal participants’ understanding generally and of their case specifically has not been the subject of empirical investigation. […] the extent to which parents’ attorneys provide them with necessary and requested information is unknown. And, even if attorneys provide this information, it is unknown whether parents are able to digest it and apply it to their cases. The current study served as an important initial investigation of what parents actually know about the system.” (p. 461)

“Insight into dependent parents’ legal understanding can also inform theoretical models of justice. […] If parents understand the dependency system, they may more readily perceive the system as fair or transparent and therefore legitimate. Such parents may then be more likely to comply with court orders, be present at court hearings, reunify with their children, and, of importance, not recidivate. Investigating parents’ understanding is a critical starting point for further tests of procedural justice concepts in the context of juvenile dependency court.” (p. 461)

“Finally, legal understanding is relevant to therapeutic jurisprudence, which is concerned with how the law relates to one’s psychological well-being and the ways in which the law can act as a therapeutic agent. […] Identifying gaps in parents’ understanding and then finding ways to fill those gaps may serve to improve parents’ psychological well-being during the case and ability to follow court mandates. […] If understanding affects compliance and reunification outcomes as well-established justice models would suggest, improving parents’ knowledge is in the best interest of all parties involved. Likewise, insight into dependent parents’ understanding may offer important ideas about new directions for procedural justice and therapeutic jurisprudence research, both of which have yet to be studied in this important population.” (pp. 461–462)

“Although prior research has not systematically examined legal understanding in dependency-involved parents, such understanding has been investigated in multiple other samples that share common characteristics with parents in the dependency system. […] Of particular relevance to the present research are studies of legal understanding of the juvenile justice system. […] Findings across these lines of work are fairly consistent in revealing significant gaps in general knowledge, with understanding at times being entirely nonexistent or even incorrect. […] Similar deficits exist in youth’s knowledge of their own case, which is perhaps not surprising given relations between children’s general and case-specific legal knowledge. […] Very few studies exist concerning parents’ legal knowledge, and those that do concern parents’ understanding of their child’s rights as a defendant and their rights as the child’s parent. Results reveal naïve and sometimes incorrect perceptions, among community samples and parents with a child in the delinquency system. […] Together, these lines of work reveal fairly low levels of knowledge among dependent and delinquent youth and parents of delinquent youth.” (p. 462)

“In the current study, parents involved in ongoing juvenile dependency cases in Florida were interviewed about their general and case-specific legal understanding. To assess general knowledge, parents were asked to define commonly used dependency terms and were asked questions about a hypothetical vignette involving a dependency case. To assess case-specific understanding, parents were asked about recent decisions and hearings. Finally, parents provided information about their background, family, and prior legal experiences. Hypotheses were as follows: (a) A majority of parents would lack comprehensive general and case-specific understanding, similar to that observed in other high-risk populations of children, adolescents, and adults; (b) A positive relation would emerge between general and case-specific understanding; (c) Regarding demographic and background characteristics, being from a lower SES background (i.e., lower income and education) would predict less understanding. Tentatively, with income and education controlled, minority parents would evidence less accurate knowledge than majority-race parents. Finally, although length of time in the system is not consistently related to legal understanding in other populations , given nuances in the dependency process, and the number of hearings parents are required to attend, parents whose cases had been going on longer would evidence better legal understanding, in general and about their own case.” (p. 463)

Participants: 105 parents involved in ongoing juvenile dependency cases; in each case either mother or father participated – in two cases both parents participated individually; 79% were mothers; ages 19–62 (M = 31.87); had between one and nine children (M = 3, SD = 1.64); 61% African American, 34.3% White, 3.8% Hispanic/Latino, 1% multiethnic or other.

“Parents’ reported level of education varied as follows: some high school (36.3%), high school diploma (24.5%), some college (32.4%), 2-year degree (2.9%), and 4-year degree (3.9%). No parent reported postgraduate training. For 76.5% of the parents, annual household income was less than $25,000. The remaining parents reported $25,000 –34,999 (15.7%), $35,000-$49,999 (5.9%), and $50,000-$74,000 (2.0%). […] Approximately one quarter of the parents had been involved with the dependency system as a child or teenager.” (p. 464)

“The current study was the first of its kind to systematically examine legal understanding in parents involved in ongoing juvenile dependency cases. […] Our first prediction, namely that knowledge would be limited, was confirmed. Parents demonstrated, on average, a limited or partial general understanding of the system (e.g., they could only marginally define such terms as guardian, petition, or case plan). Moreover, when understanding of hearing decisions was examined, parents fared only slightly better. […] As confirmation of our second hypothesis, the more parents understood generally, the more they understood about the decision in their specific hearing. The deficits in knowledge we found among parents in the current study in response to our questions are similar to deficits observed in other legal populations across multiple types of measures.” (pp. 467–468)

“Our third hypothesis was that several parent characteristics would predict variability in knowledge. Understanding was expected to be significantly lower for African American than White parents and those with lower rather than higher income and education. Poorer general legal understanding emerged among African American parents and those with lower levels of education, but not among parents who reported lower annual incomes. […] certainly greater education or perhaps nuances in quality of education could account, at least in part, for the differences in understanding of legal terms and processes. However, because education was included in our models, it does not fully account for our observed racial differences. Perhaps the way in which African American parents approach the system (e.g., with more caution given their general distrust of the justice system) or the way in which dependency professionals approach these parents (e.g., presentation of less information given perceptions of parents’ ability to understand legal concepts) contributed to the evident racial differences in legal understanding.” (p. 468)

“Other noteworthy characteristics also predicted general legal knowledge. With age and greater time in the system, understanding improved. However, parents’ case-specific understanding was unrelated to time spent in the system. […] Finally, parents who had previous involvement with the dependency system as a child and mothers (compared with fathers) understood the system better.” (p. 468)

“Despite these limitations, our study contributed valuable new knowledge. That is, we systematically examined, for the first time to the best of our knowledge, legal understanding in a critically important and marginalized population of legal participants We assessed their understanding empirically, so that we could begin to lay the groundwork for what is typical in terms of parent understanding, where gaps exist, and where interventions to augment understanding might be needed. We also laid the groundwork for future work assessing more nuanced facets of legal understanding, and critically, whether better understanding predicts increased compliance and engagement. Ultimately, the decision to fully engage in the dependency system is up to the parents and families involved. However, to engage, parents also need to fully understand their cases. Such understanding would provide them with the power to improve the plight of their families.” (p. 470)

Translating Research into Practice

“Several theoretical and practical implications can be drawn from the study’s results. First, when situated within the broader literature and theorizing on legal rights, procedural justice, and therapeutic jurisprudence, our findings suggest that more consideration be given to parents’ experience of due process in juvenile dependency cases. Low levels of understanding may inhibit parents from receiving the intended benefits of their due process rights. […] Moreover, parents’ understanding may be related to important facets of procedural justice such as participant “voice” and “neutrality” in decision-making. […] If parents do not have a basic, general understanding of the system, it may be difficult for them to articulate or even hold a specific viewpoint about their case. In addition, judges may provide information about decisions made in hearings, but if parents do not understand these decisions, the judgments and outcomes can hardly be deemed “transparent.”” (p. 469)

“With regard to therapeutic jurisprudence, if poor understanding is not addressed, parents’ well-being may be adversely affected. That is, they may experience harm or stress stemming from confusion in an already difficult process. Second, in practical terms, our findings shed light on those parents at greatest risk of poor understanding within the dependency system. As has been found in the criminal justice system, minority families are particularly at risk of having a lower understanding of the dependency system, both generally and with regard to specific details of their case. Third, our findings highlight the need for assessments and programs to ensure that parents understand the general dependency process and important aspects of their case. […] although creating and enforcing knowledge standards in dependency cases would potentially place a burden on the judicial system, failing to adequately address low parental understanding in dependency cases is likely far more costly—to families and society as a whole, and also to the children of these parents who need permanency and stability. […] At the very least, jurisdictions should invest in programming aimed specifically at increasing parents’ understanding, particularly programs that help all families understand, including fathers, parents who are new to the system, parents who have not had prior dependency contact as children, and parents from low educational and minority backgrounds. All of these parents are at high risk of poor understanding, and evidence-based programs may be especially beneficial in improving long-term outcomes for these children, parents, and families.” (p. 469)

“In future directions of this work for practice, juvenile dependency courts may consider investing in families in two key ways: (a) Assessing parents’ understanding of their cases and (b) Providing opportunities for parents to increase their understanding. Of importance, implementing these procedures may be less costly than other measures (e.g., hiring more attorneys or social workers or paying for more of their time) and may contribute tremendously to parents’ engagement in the system, including their presence at hearings and active participation in court-mandated services (e.g., counseling). […] Assessments of parent understanding can be included in initial case planning and may provide an opportunity at the outset for parents to ask questions about how their case will work and to coordinate a plan for remaining informed as the case progresses.” (p. 469)

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“The study was […] limited, in part, by the nature of how data were collected, highlighting the need for continued research on legal understanding and experiences in this important population. For one, the stressful nature of having participated in these perhaps confusing and challenging hearings may have increased parents’ difficulty attending to and recounting case details, particularly because the interviews occurred on the same day as their hearings. Although this was advantageous in terms of recruitment, it may be valuable to question parents several days after their hearing to assess their knowledge in a potentially less emotionally laden context. Also, our sample comprised exclusively parents who showed up at court, and included more mothers than fathers. Mothers are more likely to be involved and participate in their dependency cases than fathers, and certainly their understanding is critical to the case. […] Obtaining information from both parents, whether they are together or not, would be a valuable addition to the study, as would collecting information from parents who fail to show for court. […] Finally, our initial cross-sectional study must be followed by longitudinal research to evaluate, in a temporal and causal manner, the links between parents’ understanding, behavior, and the case’s outcome, especially in terms of parents’ understanding of their own case and its requirements. Such investigations could further consider the broader culture and climate of social services and the courts to gain more comprehensive knowledge of parents’ understanding and experiences.” (p. 470)

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Kseniya Katsman

Kseniya Katsman is a Master’s student in Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her interests include forensic application of dialectical behavior therapy, cultural competence in forensic assessment, and risk assessment, specifically suicide risk. She plans to continue her education and pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.