Psychological expert evidence and the Parole Board

'Psychologists P12 and P1' on the John Worboys case, and communication with the public on complex issues of risk and justice.

We write in response to the recent publicity surrounding the case of Mr Radford (Worboys), and the Judicial Review. The case raises many complex social and legal issues, but here we want to focus on the question of psychological professionalism and expertise. Rather unusually, psychologists (including the two of us) were in the spotlight, with three psychological risk assessments cited, one of these being instructed and signed off by the prison, and a psychology member on the Panel. The public outcry at the Parole Board decision led to questions being raised about the integrity and competence of the psychologists in their expert role, most particularly in arriving at an apparently irrational conclusion in what is an understandably emotive case.

We have been disappointed by the void of professional representation that might have led a measured response to the public by the British Psychological Society on behalf of its members, the lack of informed debate, and ultimately the failure to defend the professionalism and expertise of psychologists in the field of risk assessment. There has been commentary from psychologists on social media, but unfortunately, this has primarily been ill-informed, and has simply exacerbated the situation, failing to set a high standard of debate.

The case raises particularly pertinent issues for discussion, in which psychologists should be taking a leading role. Although we are all hampered by the limited access to the full documentation, it should surely raise questions in our mind when four psychologists all apparently arrive at similar conclusions regarding the risk assessment; are they truly all naive and duped, or are there some features to the case that lend weight to their opinions? What we do know from information in the public domain is that the very issues that so concern the public – Mr Radford’s denial of the offences for many years, his apparent failure to confess to all his crimes, suspicions about his level of remorse and victim empathy – are the very issues for which there is robust evidence regarding their lack of association to risk. The fascinating finding of Harkins et al. (2015) comes to mind, in which 7000 convicted UK sex offenders were followed up and it was found that those who took full responsibility for their offence sexually reoffended at a significantly higher rate than those who took partial or no responsibility for their offence. We now know that these post-hoc offence rationalisations are driven by shame, a functional response to wrong-doing, often held by those individuals with stronger social bonds.

This is not the place to review the full literature on denial, minimisation and victim empathy. However, it is important to emphasise that the public are responding to questions of risk in a commonsense fashion that mirrors exactly how psychologists used to think about risk when relying on clinical judgement. It has taken us some 10 years of empirical and theoretical advances to realise that sometimes common sense lets us down and that we have been focusing on the wrong risk variables; it took us a further 10 years or so to accept this knowledge at an emotional level, and to begin to update our approach. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons why HM Prison & Probation Service has introduced new accredited programmes for sex offenders that do not require a focus on the offending behaviour itself.

Professional, evidence-based advances in risk assessment, are sometimes controversial, sometimes counterintuitive. We would like to see the BPS and other professional bodies step up and engage with the public in communicating these complex ideas.

Psychologists P12 and P1 (as referred to in the Judicial Review – names withheld for legal reasons)

Harkins, L., Howard, P., Barnett, G. et al. (2015). Relationships between denial, risk and recidivism in sexual offenders. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 44, 157–166.

Illustration: Tim Sanders

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One of the problems with this case is that the media and the general population tend to lack access (rightly) to all the data submitted to the Parole Board and pick up on the sensational cases and ignore the hundreds of Parole Hearings that make important decisions about the discharge or otherwise of prisoners.