Forensic psychology in the dock
This book is clearly intended to be provocative and accessible to a wide readership. The title and style suggest an attempt to be seen in the tradition of publications such as Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science (2008, Fourth Estate). Its central argument is that forensic psychology (prisons and the Parole Board, at any rate) is dominated by procedures for assessing and reducing risk of reoffending that have little or no empirical foundation. It is further argued that the whole enterprise is driven by political and organisational imperatives and maintained by the fallibility of human judgement, inadequate training and defensiveness. Alleged consequences include wasting taxpayers’ money on a grand scale and the injustice of unnecessarily prolonged incarceration. It is recommended that psychologists should not muddy the waters of reliability and validity by the exercise of personal judgement and there should be no straying from procedures supported by rigorous evaluation. One implication is that cognitive-behavioural programmes for addressing complex offence-related behaviour should be abandoned.
Numerous personal anecdotes lean rather heavily on the trope of the voice of reason standing against bureaucracy and vested interests. Resentful reviewers may be tempted to reciprocate by drawing parallels with Robert Martinson (1974), who damaged the field of rehabilitation before publishing a retraction, or even with the author’s near namesake who shot the outlaw Jesse James in the back; I mention these so they don’t have to. Examining where the author may have succumbed to the very heuristics and biases that he criticises in others could be a more productive venture. I hope none of this distracts from the better justified points concerning shortcomings in vision and implementation within the field over the last couple of decades and the Kafkaesque logic that has sometimes attended them. Ultimately, though, I found this book to be disappointing in several respects.
Initially I was intrigued by the author’s conversational style and uncompromising approach towards a questionable orthodoxy that in many ways has been both limited and limiting. To clarify my own direction of travel, I am amongst those who have questioned (e.g. Needs, 2016; Needs & Adair-Stantiall, 2018). As I read on, I became increasingly uneasy at the lack of coverage of existing critiques (there have been many) and this mounted as it became apparent that limited acknowledgement of prior work extends to other key areas (such as the relevance of heuristics and biases). However, it was when I reached the sweeping assertions regarding interventions that I was particularly dismayed by the less than comprehensive use of evidence. I have never been a conventional advocate or apologist for what the author terms the ‘offending behaviour industry’ and to say that the area has a chequered history is an understatement. Nonetheless, we owe it to the reader and the future development of the field to be as accurate and fair as possible. There really is no space to debate this here, but the interested reader could do worse than start with the recent ‘review of reviews’ by Weisburd et al. (2017) and work backwards.
Such considerations caused me to wonder again about the nature of the intended readership. The style is not that of an academic publication but the overuse in places of footnotes sits rather uneasily with a popular work. Also, being a non-specialist is unlikely to confer immunity from the cumulative effects of repetition and occasional sentences that reminded me of the editorials of certain non-broadsheet newspapers. I would not expect everyone to share my frustration at processes involved in life events being reduced to regression to the mean, or developments in improving custodial environments by social means being ignored in favour of token economies and proposals for something that sounds rather like the existing Incentives and Earned Privileges system. Even a prisoner not averse to endorsing a publication that purports to discredit an influential part of the system that holds sway over his life might be confused at this point. In fact I found the pages on future directions the most disappointing of all.
In terms of the evolution of the field the author’s failure to represent important aspects of past, current, emerging or potential practice and associated research could do more harm than the criticisms around which the book is based. If forensic psychology needs to ‘return’ to science, I would urge that there needs to be a debate within forensic psychology about how science is understood and practised. For example, it has been suggested that neglect of context and process can make even randomised controlled trials ‘effectively useless’ (Byrne, 2013). Similarly, failure to think in terms of the dynamics of systems at every level can hamstring the ability of psychologists to engage with them in a productive manner.
If we attempt to locate science precisely where Dr Forde says we left it, we might find that it has moved on.
- Reviewed by Dr Adrian Needs, Principal Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth and Registered Forensic Psychologist
Byrne, D. (2013). Evaluating complex interventions in a complex world. Evaluation, 19, 217– 228.
Martinson, R. (1974). What works? Questions and answers about prison reform. The Public Interest, 35, 22–54.
Needs, A. (2016). Rehabilitation – writing a new story. The Psychologist, 29(3), 192–195.
Needs, A. & Adair-Stantiall, A. (2018). The social context of transition and rehabilitation. In G. Akerman, A. Needs & C. Bainbridge (Eds.) Transforming environments and rehabilitation: A guide for practitioners in forensic settings and criminal justice. London: Routledge.
Weisburd, D., Farrington, D.P. & Gill, C. (2017). What works in crime prevention and rehabilitation. Criminology & Public Policy, 16(2), 415–449.
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