A Closer Look

A 15-year old boy shoots and kills a store clerk. If that teenager is given a 15-year sentence in an adult prison, says psychologist Joel D. Dvoskin, PhD, he will leave prison more dangerous than when he went in. In prison, he will have to learn to survive at great personal cost, and whatever prosocial values he had will be snuffed out, explains Dvoskin, who becomes president Div. 41 (American Psychology-Law Society) in August.

"This may be a kid who had an adolescent temper tantrum with a gun and killed someone," Dvoskin says. "Now we have turned him into a lost cause. If you want him to come back into society, you have to have him come back healthier and not more damaged."

Div. 41 psychologists are applying their research skills to understand how they can help offenders do just that. One of Dvoskin's goals for his Div. 41 presidential term is to encourage members to use science to evaluate shortcomings in the corrections system and put alternatives into practice that will benefit both prisoners and the public.

"What we are at our core is science for practice, not science versus practice," says Dvoskin, a forensic psychologist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. "Our members pick projects and things to study that matter in some significant way to public safety, the criminal-, civil- and juvenile-justice systems, and fairness and accuracy."

Care versus control

One such member is Jennifer Skeem, PhD, an assistant psychology professor at the University of California, Irvine. Skeem works to identify the factors that influence whether probationers and parolees with a mental disorder will fail-that is, violate the conditions of their release or commit a new crime.

The prevalence of mental disorders among criminal offenders, Skeem says, is disproportionate to the general population. Men in prison are nearly four times more likely-and incarcerated women are eight times more likely-than the general population to be diagnosable with a serious mental disorder, she says. Additionally, 75 percent of prisoners with mental illness also have a substance abuse disorder.

"We know that individuals with co-occurring mental and substance abuse disorders are a challenging population to treat," she says. "Some view probation, parole and other forms of involvement in the criminal-justice system as a unique opportunity to engage them in treatment."

In her research, Skeem examines individual, relationship and systems factors that affect whether individuals with mental disorders successfully complete probation. In one study, described in the March issue of Psychiatric Services (Vol. 57, No. 3, pages 333-342), Skeem found that when parole officers demonstrate caring, fairness and respect to probationers, the probationers are less likely to fail on supervision. Conversely, when officers use common negative pressure tactics, such as threats of incarceration, they can cause probationers to feel anxious. This can lead to a decline in the probationer's attendance of scheduled meetings, which possibly violates the terms of their probation.

The extent to which officers and systems emphasize care, or rehabilitation, in addition to control, or public safety, seems to be a key factor that affects how well probationers with mental disorder do on supervision, says Skeem.

Skeem suggests that a possible intervention could be training parole officers in problem-solving skills. Instead of setting up a negative relationship by just reprimanding a probationer who is not complying with a condition of release, probation officers could talk with their charges to figure out what is going on and remove any obstacles to compliance, she says. For example, if a probationer is not taking a required antipsychotic medication because it causes serious adverse side effects, the parole officer could collaboratively schedule a medication evaluation and develop a plan for adhering to a new medication regimen. If an officer can get to the root of the problem, and help correct it while showing firmness, fairness and kindness, probationers likely will be more successful on supervision, says Skeem.

Relational aggression in girls

Another Div. 41 member, Naomi Goldstein, PhD, is developing interventions tailored to female juvenile offenders.

Many interventions in the juvenile justice system have been made up on the fly by staff members, Goldstein notes, so there is no way to track if a particular intervention works. By conducting systematic, controlled research studies, Goldstein hopes to discover exactly which interventions are successful and which aren't, and be able to disseminate effective treatments to correctional facilities.

Goldstein, co-director of the joint law-psychology program at Villanova Law School and Drexel

University, received an early-career award from the National Institutes of Health in March to look at ways to reduce physical and relational aggression in incarcerated girls.

Girls tend to have high levels of relational aggression, in which they use exclusion or threat to a relationship as a way to manipulate others or exert power, she notes.

"Imagine girls in a seventh-grade cafeteria," says Goldstein, "and that's relational aggression."

In a correctional facility, what may start out as relational aggression can easily escalate to physical violence, says Goldstein, with the ultimate impact of prolonging aggressive girls' stays. Part of Goldstein's intervention will involve teaching girls how to appropriately express anger without resorting to relational or physical aggression. Another part will help girls develop the coping skills to work through family issues when they are released; Goldstein has found that many incarcerated girls say incidents with their mothers or other family members precipitated the acts that led to their arrest.

Because 60 to 80 percent of girls in the juvenile-justice system are diagnosable with at least one mental disorder, says Goldstein, she also will examine how mental health issues are related to girls' anger and aggression.

Policy implications

Empirical research such as Goldstein's and Skeem's will translate not only into practice, but also into policy-making, says Div. 41 member Natacha Blain, JD, PhD, former chief council for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). As director of research at the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and a former chair of APA's Committee on Legal Issues (COLI) Judicial Ambassadors Program, Blain links psychologists, policy-makers and legal personnel.

While with COLI, she helped develop programs in which psychologists educated judges and others in the legal community on how psychologists can advise them on issues of law.

"Legislators look at the data we collect," she explains, "and from that data determine whether there are real problems that need to be addressed from a federal or state level."

To get the word out that psychologists can help policy-makers address these problems, Blain suggests that psychologists try to publish their research in staple publications of the legal community, such as the American Bar Association's ABA Journal.

Contrary to the myth that "nothing works," says Dvoskin, he believes that psychologists have a lot to say about how to make America safer. As part of his Div. 41 presidential initiative, he and Skeem plan to co-edit a book, aimed at policy-makers and the public, that shares what psychologists from all fields have learned about changing human behavior. The book is intended to provide practical suggestions, based on psychological science, for creating safer American communities, says Dvoskin.

"Contrary to popular political mythology, punishment is not the purpose of the justice system; it is one means to the end of a safer America, and it isn't working very well," he says. "Psychologists should be leading the way toward teaching and reinforcing prosocial behaviors and skills, so that those criminals who want to live crime-free lives have a chance to do so. Our goal is to give the people with power practical advice that will help make us safer."

Further Reading

APA’s Div. 41 (American Psychology-Law Society) promotes the contributions of psychology to the understanding of law and legal institutions, the education of psychologists in legal matters and law personnel in psychological matters, and the application of psychology in the legal system. The division holds a biennial spring meeting that includes paper and plenary sessions. Members receive the bimonthly journal Law and Human Behavior and the American Psychology-Law Society Newsletter three times per year. For more information, or to join, visit the Div. 41 Web site at www.ap-ls.org.