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Discerning Bias in Forensic Psychological Reports in Insanity Cases

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This project began as an attempt to develop systematic, measurable indicators of bias in written forensic mental health evaluations focused on the issue of insanity. Although forensic clinicians observed in this study did vary systematically in their report-writing behaviors on

This project began as an attempt to develop systematic, measurable indicators of bias in written forensic mental health evaluations focused on the issue of insanity. Although forensic clinicians observed in this study did vary systematically in their report-writing behaviors on several of the indicators of interest, the data are most useful in demonstrating how and why bias is hard to ferret out. Naturalistic data was used in this project (i.e., 122 real forensic insanity reports), which in some ways is a strength. However, given the nature of bias and the problem of inferring whether a particular judgment is biased, naturalistic data also made arriving at conclusions about bias difficult. This paper describes the nature of bias – including why it is a special problem in insanity evaluations – and why it is hard to study and document. It details the efforts made in an attempt to find systematic indicators of potential bias, and how this effort was successful in part but also how and why it failed. The lessons these efforts yield for future research are described. We close with a discussion of the limitations of this study and future directions for work in this area.

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2018-04-19

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Moral Disengagement in Legal Judgments

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We investigated the role of moral disengagement in a legally‐relevant judgment in this theoretically‐driven empirical analysis. Moral disengagement is a social‐cognitive phenomenon through which people reason their way toward harming others, presenting a useful framework for investigating legal judgments that

We investigated the role of moral disengagement in a legally‐relevant judgment in this theoretically‐driven empirical analysis. Moral disengagement is a social‐cognitive phenomenon through which people reason their way toward harming others, presenting a useful framework for investigating legal judgments that often result in harming individuals for the good of society. We tested the role of moral disengagement in forensic psychologists’ willingness to conduct the most ethically questionable clinical task in the criminal justice system: competence for execution evaluations. Our hypothesis that moral disengagement would function as mediator of participants’ existing attitudes and their judgments—a theoretical “bridge” between attitudes and judgments—was robustly supported. Moral disengagement was key to understanding how psychologists decide to engage in competence for execution evaluations. We describe in detail the moral disengagement measure we used, including exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses across two separate samples. The four‐factor measure accounted for a total of 52.18 percent of the variance in the sample of forensic psychologists, and the model adequately fit the data in the entirely different sample of jurors in a confirmatory factor analysis. Despite the psychometric strengths of this moral disengagement measure, we describe the pros and cons of existing measures of moral disengagement. We outline future directions for moral disengagement research, especially in legal contexts.

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2017-11-07

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Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils: A Framework for Considering the Ethics of Competence for Execution Evaluations

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Prisoners sentenced to death must be competent for execution before they can actually be executed (Ford v. Wainwright, 1986). The decision for many mental health professionals whether to conduct competence for execution evaluations may be fraught with complex ethical issues.

Prisoners sentenced to death must be competent for execution before they can actually be executed (Ford v. Wainwright, 1986). The decision for many mental health professionals whether to conduct competence for execution evaluations may be fraught with complex ethical issues. Mental health professionals who do not personally support capital punishment may have a particularly difficult decision to make in this regard but should seriously consider the consequences of their decisions. This article applies Bush, Connell, and Denney’s (2006) eight-step ethical decision-making model to the ethicality of deciding to or abstaining from conducting competence for execution evaluations. This article does not propose what decisions an individual evaluator should make regarding this work, but rather presents a systematic guide for mental health professionals (particularly those who do not support capital punishment) to consider.

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2010

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A Reasoned Argument Against Banning Psychologists’ Involvement in Death Penalty Cases

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Prompted by the involvement of psychologists in torturous interrogations at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the American Psychological Association (APA) revised its Ethics Code Standard 1.02 to prohibit psychologists from engaging in activities that would “justify or defend violating human rights.”

Prompted by the involvement of psychologists in torturous interrogations at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the American Psychological Association (APA) revised its Ethics Code Standard 1.02 to prohibit psychologists from engaging in activities that would “justify or defend violating human rights.” The revision to Standard 1.02 followed APA policy statements condemning torture and prohibiting psychologists’ involvement in such activities that constitute a violation of human rights (APA, 2010). Cogent questions have subsequently been raised about the involvement of psychologists in other activities that could arguably lead to human rights violations, even if the activity in question is legal. While this language was designed to be expansive in defining psychologists’ ethical responsibilities, it remains difficult to determine whether and how Standard 1.02 might apply to a particular situation.

In the present analysis, we focus on the question of whether psychologists should be involved in death penalty cases. We assert that the APA should not take an ethical stand against psychologists’ participation in death penalty cases. Our position is not intended necessarily to reflect approval or disapproval of the death penalty although we recognize that there are serious flaws in the American legal system with regard to capital punishment. Our perspective is that psychologists have an important role in the administration of due process in capital cases. We oppose a bright-line rule prohibiting psychologists’ involvement in death penalty cases for several reasons. We begin by considering whether the death penalty per se constitutes a human rights violation, move on to describe the basic functioning of the legal system, analyze how the involvement of psychologists actually affects the capital trial process, and end with providing practical advice for psychologists’ provision of ethical services in capital trials.

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2013

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Occupational Socialization’s Role in Forensic Psychologists’ Objectivity

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This report integrated quantitative and qualitative methods across two studies to compile descriptive information about forensic psychologists’ occupational socialization processes. We also explored the relation between occupational socialization and forensic psychologists’ objectivity. After interviewing 20 board-certified forensic psychologists, we surveyed

This report integrated quantitative and qualitative methods across two studies to compile descriptive information about forensic psychologists’ occupational socialization processes. We also explored the relation between occupational socialization and forensic psychologists’ objectivity. After interviewing 20 board-certified forensic psychologists, we surveyed 334 forensic psychologists about their socialization into the field. Results indicated that the occupational socialization processes of forensic psychologists, including socialization about objectivity, varied widely across time and situation as the field has developed. Moreover, three hypotheses regarding occupational socialization were supported. It was positively and significantly associated with years of experience, t(284) = 3.63, p < 0.001, 95% CI = 0.05 – 0.16; belief in one’s ability to be objective, t(296) = 9.90, p < 0.001, 95% CI = 0.69 – 1.03; and endorsement of the usefulness of various bias correction strategies, r = 0.38 (p < .001, one-tailed). The implications of these results and directions for future research are discussed.

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2014

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Not Just Welfare Over Justice: Ethics in Forensic Consultation.

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The ethics of forensic professionalism is often couched in terms of competing individual and societal values. Indeed, the welfare of individuals is often secondary to the requirements of society, especially given the public nature of courts of law, forensic hospitals,

The ethics of forensic professionalism is often couched in terms of competing individual and societal values. Indeed, the welfare of individuals is often secondary to the requirements of society, especially given the public nature of courts of law, forensic hospitals, jails, and prisons. We explore the weaknesses of this dichotomous approach to forensic ethics, offering an analysis of Psychology's historical narrative especially relevant to the national security and correctional settings. We contend that a richer, more robust ethical analysis is available if practitioners consider the multiple perspectives in the forensic encounter, and acknowledge the multiple influences of personal, professional, and social values. The setting, context, or role is not sufficient to determine the ethics of forensic practice.

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2013-12-28

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Are Forensic Experts Already Biased Before Adversarial Legal Parties Hire Them?

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This survey of 206 forensic psychologists tested the “filtering” effects of preexisting expert attitudes in adversarial proceedings. Results confirmed the hypothesis that evaluator attitudes toward capital punishment influence willingness to accept capital case referrals from particular adversarial parties. Stronger death

This survey of 206 forensic psychologists tested the “filtering” effects of preexisting expert attitudes in adversarial proceedings. Results confirmed the hypothesis that evaluator attitudes toward capital punishment influence willingness to accept capital case referrals from particular adversarial parties. Stronger death penalty opposition was associated with higher willingness to conduct evaluations for the defense and higher likelihood of rejecting referrals from all sources Conversely, stronger support was associated with higher willingness to be involved in capital cases generally, regardless of referral source. The findings raise the specter of skewed evaluator involvement in capital evaluations, where evaluators willing to do capital casework may have stronger capital punishment support than evaluators who opt out, and evaluators with strong opposition may work selectively for the defense. The results may provide a partial explanation for the “allegiance effect” in adversarial legal settings such that preexisting attitudes may contribute to partisan participation through a self-selection process.

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2016-04-28

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Forensic Clinicians’ Understanding of Bias

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Bias, or systematic influences that create errors in judgment, can affect psychological evaluations in ways that lead to erroneous diagnoses and opinions. Although these errors can have especially serious consequences in the criminal justice system, little research has addressed forensic

Bias, or systematic influences that create errors in judgment, can affect psychological evaluations in ways that lead to erroneous diagnoses and opinions. Although these errors can have especially serious consequences in the criminal justice system, little research has addressed forensic psychologists’ awareness of well-known cognitive biases and debiasing strategies. We conducted a national survey with a sample of 120 randomly-selected licensed psychologists with forensic interests to examine a) their familiarity with and understanding of cognitive biases, b) their self-reported strategies to mitigate bias, and c) the relation of a and b to psychologists’ cognitive reflection abilities. Most psychologists reported familiarity with well-known biases and distinguished these from sham biases, and reported using research-identified strategies but not fictional/sham strategies. However, some psychologists reported little familiarity with actual biases, endorsed sham biases as real, failed to recognize effective bias mitigation strategies, and endorsed ineffective bias mitigation strategies. Furthermore, nearly everyone endorsed introspection (a strategy known to be ineffective) as an effective bias mitigation strategy. Cognitive reflection abilities were systematically related to error, such that stronger cognitive reflection was associated with less endorsement of sham biases.

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2019-09-10

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Forensic Psychology and Correctional Psychology: Distinct but Related Subfields of Psychological Science and Practice

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This paper delineates two separate but related subfields of psychological science and practice applicable across all major areas of the field (e.g., clinical, counseling, developmental, social, cognitive, community). Forensic and correctional psychology are related by their historical roots, involvement in

This paper delineates two separate but related subfields of psychological science and practice applicable across all major areas of the field (e.g., clinical, counseling, developmental, social, cognitive, community). Forensic and correctional psychology are related by their historical roots, involvement in the justice system, and the shared population of people they study and serve. The practical and ethical contexts of these subfields is distinct from other areas of psychology – and from one another – with important implications for ecologically valid research and ethically sound practice. Forensic psychology is a subfield of psychology in which basic and applied psychological science or scientifically-oriented professional practice is applied to the law to help resolve legal, contractual, or administrative matters. Correctional psychology is a subfield of psychology in which basic and applied psychological science or scientifically-oriented professional practice is applied to the justice system to inform the classification, treatment, and management of offenders to reduce risk and improve public safety. There has been and continues to be great interest in both subfields – especially the potential for forensic and correctional psychological science to help resolve practical issues and questions in legal and justice settings. This paper traces the shared and separate developmental histories of these subfields, outlines their important distinctions and implications, and provides a common understanding and shared language for psychologists interested in applying their knowledge in forensic or correctional contexts.

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2018-04-01