Associated Press writer Michael Gormley reports on the introduction of post-conviction polygraph screening of sex offenders in New York State:
States use polygraphs to monitor paroled sex offenders
By MICHAEL GORMLEY
Associated Press Writer
December 11, 2006, 6:43 PM EST
ALBANY, N.Y. — When Andrew McDaniels, a convicted sex offender in upstate N.Y., was interviewed by a parole officer in September, he faced something new. The parole officer had a laptop computer receiving data from skin sensors on McDaniels. When the parole officer noticed a blip, he asked more pointed questions.
Soon, McDaniels acknowledged he had been around boys near Watkins Glen, parole officials said Monday. More officers followed up in the field and the parolee was accused of violating the condition of his release that requires him to stay away from children. He remains in Schuyler County Jail until a hearing this week, Parole Division spokesman Scott Steinhardt said.
New York is the latest state to require paroled sex offenders to answer questions while hooked to a lie-detecting computer.
It should be noted that as of December 2006, there is no such thing as a lie-detecting computer.
The action, by the outgoing Pataki administration, comes just before the legislature will consider civil confinement for the most dangerous sex offenders after they complete their sentences. Gov. George Pataki has called for the legislature to meet Wednesday to pass a civil confinement bill for sex offenders.
Parole officers equipped with the computers ask convicted sex offenders about where they have been and who they have seen to determine whether they might have violated parole. They are also asked if they committed any new crimes.
“It is being used more,” said Anna Carol Salter, a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist in Madison, Wis. She lectures on sex offenders and is a consultant to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, which uses polygraphs for sex offender cases.
“I think it is proving to be effective. You get many, many more admissions by offenders about illegal activities and it also appears to act as a deterrent,” she said. “They are often more fearful of lying to a polygraph than they are to a person.”
That may be. But as convicted sex offenders subjected to polygraph screening come to learn that the lie detector is a pseudoscientific sham, the admissions will inevitably dry up.
Skin monitors provide data on changes in a subject’s skin temperature, moisture and electrical signals sent to the brain. The information is then sent to the computer, where a trained operator does the analysis. Long gone is the stylus hooked up to a paper roller.
Actually, standard polygraph instruments do not provide data on changes in skin temperature, nor do they record “electrical signals sent to the brain.” Associated Press writer Michael Gormley hasn’t done his homework on polygraphs.
Salter said, however, there is a concern. A badly administered test, for example, could yield results that show a parolee is following the rules when he or she isn’t. That would lull parole officials into a false sense that all is well. And, she said: “It’s easy to do a bad polygraph.”
It doesn’t take a “badly administered test” to yield erroneous results. Not only does polygraph testing have no scientific basis to begin with, it is also vulnerable to simple, effective, and readily available countermeasures.
The use of polygraphs for sex offenders, begun in the early 1970s in Oregon, Idaho and Washington, has spread steadily nationwide, said T.V. O’Malley of the American Polygraph Association.”It’s getting more popular as polygraph has cleaned up its act and we became very sophisticated about sex offender results,” he said. “The alternative is self-disclosure. And that doesn’t work.”
This is the same T.V. O’Malley who recently said of polygraph testing, “It’s kind of like…confessing to a priest.” AntiPolygraph.org would be interested to hear more from the American Polygraph Association precisely how, and since when, “polygraph has cleaned up its act.” It is to be recalled that the American Polygraph Association doesn’t consider the fact that a life member and past president is falsely passing himself off to the public as a Ph.D. in marketing his polygraph services to pose an ethical problem.
In New York, 13 parole officers have been trained to do the tests as part of “Operation Truth or Consequences,” state Division of Parole Executive Director Anthony G. Ellis II said Monday. The training, equipment and the cost to dedicate trained officers to conduct the tests is about $1 million this fiscal year, according to the division.
“There are no limits as to what you can ask, but they are trained to gear it in a certain way so you can get what you are looking for,” said Angela Jimenez, director of operations at the division. “This group needs tighter control,” she said, noting that there is a high rate of recidivism among sex offenders.
If tighter control is what’s needed, why grant sex offenders parole in the first place? Imprisonment is a much more reliable deterrent to recidivism than pseudoscientific polygraphs.
Polygraphs are being used on sex offenders in more than two dozen states, sometimes in trial programs, and in Great Britain, according to newspaper accounts. A British pilot program found 85 percent of convicted sex offenders were committing new crimes or violating parole or simply failed the polygraph, according to The Independent of London.
A study by the Colorado Department of Public Safety sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice found more than half of the sex offenders subjected to polygraph tests were in violation of their supervision rules. As a result, 37 percent were given new treatment plans and 15 percent were returned to court for further action.
Polygraph “testing” can only detect parole or probation violations to the extent that those “tested” are naive and gullible enough to admit to them.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers based in Washington is studying the issue, but has some concerns. For example, supporters say the tests are 90 percent accurate, while detractors say they are only 70 percent accurate. Even at 90 percent, that could mean thousands of innocent men and women would face jail time or further restrictions because of a bad test, said the association’s Jack King.
The claim that detractors say polygraphs are “only 70 percent accurate” is a misleading piece of disinformation that has in the past been actively spread by polygraph proponents such as Frank Horvath. In reality, the commonly held view among polygraph critics is that because polygraphy is unstandardized and lacking in scientific control, no meaningful accuracy rate is knowable.
“We don’t have a policy yet, but generally you don’t want to put somebody’s liberty in the hands of a polygrapher,” King said.
In May, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Albany ruled that lie detector tests can be used on sex offenders, but included safeguards such as limiting questions to information necessary for supervision, case monitoring and treatment.
New York State Division of Parole director of operations Angela Jimenez seems to be unaware of any such limits on questioning. She is quoted earlier in the article as saying, “There are no limits as to what you can ask…”
The appeals court ruling found that polygraph testing “produces an incentive to tell the truth, and thereby advances the sentencing goals.”
The polygraph can only continue to produce an “incentive to tell the truth” so long as parolees remain under the delusion that the polygraph can detect lies. It is sad to see the courts, who should know better, embrace such magical thinking.