Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Art of Forensic Psychology

Making Recommendations

Craig Price
Craig Price

In Rhode Island, 15-year-old Craig Price was convicted of killing four women in two separate events.  Several years later, since he was a juvenile, he was about to be released.  The attorney general called FBI profiler Gregg McCrary to assist them make a case for this kid's potential to be a danger to society, and he complied.  "They had psychologists doing the more traditional psychology assessment," he says in The Unknown Darkness, "but what I could offer came from area with which the psychologists had no experience.  The work that we in the Behavioral Science Unit have done has been unique.  We've developed an unusual degree of expertise on crimes that were unexplored until we started plowing into that area."

Gregg McCrary
Gregg McCrary

In a six-page analysis, he addressed the fact that as a juvenile, Craig Price would get out with no record, so he'd have increased access to weapons, diminished parental control, greater mobility, and increased criminal sophistication.  Given his past record, he was a poor risk and would be difficult to apprehend in the future: already a serial killer by the age of 15, he was likely to continue to be violent.   "From our data," McCrary said, "we could point out that less than one percent of homicide cases on record reach that level of violence.  Price had an established pattern of predatory violence and there was no reason to believe that he would not act out again against more victims… Craig Price, I believed, would continue to pose a grave threat to society."  In 1995, just before his release, Price got seven more years for another offense, and with his subsequent assault on two prison guards he received twenty-five more years. 

Book cover: The Unknown Darkness
Book cover: The Unknown

Although psychologists try to avoid making a judgment on the "ultimate issue" of guilt or innocence, they are often asked to give an expert opinion on the chances of an offender repeating his or her offense.  Historically known as the analysis of "dangerousness," it is now referred to as risk or threat assessment.  In the wake of workplace violence and school shootings, this skill now grounds businesses that go well beyond consulting on cases for parole boards.  Nevertheless, the decision to let someone out of prison remains an important job for forensic psychology.

It was once the case that when mental health experts used their best clinical judgment to try to determine whether someone was going to repeat his violent behavior if let out into the community, they were right in only one out of three cases.  That means that there were many "false positives"--people committed who would not be violent--and "false negatives"--people allowed to go free who then committed violence. During the 1980s, a number of studies were undertaken to develop instruments that would improve the percentage of correct assessments, and instead of focusing on dangerousness itself, they emphasized what they called "risk factors."

Interviews and inventories were developed to determine whether a defendant was a psychopath (which had a high correlation for recidivism), whether he was sexually deviant (another good predictor), how impulsive he was, whether he had a character disorder or mental illness, whether he had paranoid delusions, what his school record was, and what his past history of violence was.  Out of these studies came guidelines for making predictions based on facts and logic rather than on intuition or psychoanalytic assumptions.

At best, clinicians can make recommendations about risk relative to a time and a context, and they should provide comprehensive information about the risk factors upon which they focus in a given case.  Risk management, which involves devising programs to help a person avoid repeating his crimes, focuses on those factors that may yield to intervention, such as substance abuse or paranoid delusions.  Important factors in risk assessment include the quality of the individual's social support, living arrangements, and access to treatment.

Aside from these assessments, at times, a psychologist's participation may be as someone who notes the relevance of psychological research to a case and who attempts to get this information to the court.  Among the most researched areas is eyewitness accuracy.

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