Subscribe: Psychology, Public Policy, and Law - Vol 15, Iss 4
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Psychology, Public Policy, and Law - Vol 22, Iss 4

Psychology, Public Policy, and Law focuses on the links between psychology as a science and public policy and law.

Last Build Date: Fri, 20 Jan 2017 08:00:09 EST

Copyright: Copyright 2017 American Psychological Association

Crime control theater: Past, present, and future.


Crime control theater (CCT) describes legal actions (e.g., policies) that appear to address crime but are sometimes ineffective and can potentially have unintended negative consequences. Four key criteria of CCT include reactionary response to moral panic, unquestioned acceptance and promotion, appeal to mythic narratives, and empirical failure. Social psychological phenomenon such as counterfactual thinking, emotions, and social cognition potentially influence individuals’ support for CCT policies. A variety of legal actions—including AMBER Alerts, sex offender registration laws, 3-strikes laws, safe haven laws, and raids on the FLDS religious compounds—can be classified as crime control theater. Moreover, overselling these legal actions could be associated with a variety of potential dangers. For instance, the danger of overselling sex offender registration laws is that people focus on stereotypical sexual abuse (e.g., abuse committed by strangers) and underestimate the greater risk of sexual abuse among acquaintances. This article outlines the history of CCT, identifies specific legal actions that can be classified as CCT, identifies psychological phenomenon that might affect support for CCT policies, illustrates the dangers of overselling these legal actions, offers recommendations to avoid or improve theatrical legal actions, and offers future directions for researchers. This article concludes with an introduction to the special journal issue examining the science of CCT. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

Counterfactual thinking about crime control theater: Mock jurors’ decision making in an AMBER Alert trial.


Crime control theater refers to policies enacted as a response to a moral panic, based on folk beliefs about crime; such policies are perceived as more effective than they really are. AMBER Alerts are one example of crime control theater. Beliefs that AMBER Alerts can protect children might lead people to develop counterfactual scenarios in which they think “if only” an AMBER Alert had been issued (or issued earlier) the abducted child could have been rescued. This study evaluated the influence of case characteristics conducive to generating counterfactual statements (e.g., abnormality, controllability) and juror education on mock jurors’ decision making in a trial involving parents who are suing a law enforcement agency for negligence following the agency’s alleged failure to rescue their abducted child. Manipulations that promoted counterfactual thinking led mock jurors to be more certain of the defendant’s liability, award greater damages to the parents, and perceive the agency as more responsible for the child’s death (but this varied by sample type). Conversely, educating jurors on the limitations of the AMBER Alert system resulted in lower certainty of the agency’s responsibility and nullified the effect of AMBER Alert issuance on damage awards. The effects of abnormality and controllability on participants’ decisions were mediated by generating counterfactual statements. Findings indicate that counterfactual thinking might influence individuals’ support for crime control theater policies. Specifically, individuals exposed to aversive events (e.g., abduction and death of a child) might be motivated to support policies (e.g., AMBER Alerts) that could have prevented the aversive event. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

Crime control theater: Public (mis)perceptions of the effectiveness of sex offender residence restrictions.


Some crime control policies are ineffective, yet still draw substantial public support. Such laws, labeled “crime control theater” (CCT), derive their unquestioned public support from moral panics involving mythic narratives, yet little research has actually linked these criteria to support for a theater law. This study draws on the concept of CCT to better understand public perceptions of sex offender residence restrictions. Specifically, it evaluates what community member beliefs and or characteristics increase the likelihood that residence restrictions will be perceived as an effective law to decrease sex crime recidivism. Drawing on data from a national random sample of Americans, logistic regression is used to analyze the factors associated with this CCT law. Results indicate that if community members are Catholic, are a parent of a minor child, and believe in stranger danger, they are more likely to believe that residence restrictions are effective in reducing sex crime recidivism. Results are discussed in relation to residence restrictions as a CCT law, including the deleterious effects of residence restrictions and possible pathways to prevent the persistence of this law. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

Evaluating public perceptions of the risk presented by registered sex offenders: Evidence of crime control theater?


Survey research suggests that many members of the public ascribe to myths about sex offenders. These “mythic narratives” relate to the perceived homogeneity of the sex offender population and the extent and nature of reoffense risk. The prominence of such belief systems in media and policy discourse may contribute to adoption of public policies that carry significant symbolic value, yet may fall short of their ostensible goals of protecting children and preventing sexual victimization—a condition framed by some as crime control theater. This study surveyed a nationally representative Internet sample of 1,000 U.S. adults to examine mythic narrative beliefs regarding the risk presented by registered sex offenders (RSOs) who are on the public Internet registry. Respondents estimated the proportion of RSOs who were pedophiles, sexual predators, strangers to their victims, and who were at a high risk of committing 6 types of sexual and nonsexual offenses. Factor analysis revealed high levels of convergence in respondent ratings across these 9 variables, and relatively high estimates of RSO risk, affirming that the public generally ascribes to the mythic narratives underlying crime control theater. Higher estimates of RSO risk were associated with respondents who were female, Hispanic, less educated, more conservative, and less politically knowledgeable. Further, higher estimates of RSO risk were associated with never having used the registry, believing the registry is effective and warrants increased funding, believing sex crimes are increasing, and maintaining that research evidence would not change their views about registry effectiveness. Implications for policy and practice are discussed. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

If you judge, investigate! Responsibility reduces confirmatory information processing in legal experts.


Fair and well justified judicial decisions require that judges evaluate and interpret all relevant facts. However, heuristics and other shortcuts are used here as well. Additionally, it has been demonstrated that experts may be subject to the same decision biases as laypeople. Therefore, we investigated whether and to what extent judicial experts are protected against confirmatory information processing (CIP), a tendency to seek out (selective exposure) and evaluate information more positively (biased assimilation) when it confirms one’s own preliminary decision. Results indicate that legal experts (judges, prosecutors, and defense-lawyers) evaluated information supporting their preliminary decision more positively than conflicting information. However, there is a clear expertise effect: domain-specific experts (e.g., criminal-law experts deciding a criminal-law case) showed less CIP than general experts (legal professionals with specializations in other fields than criminal-law), who did not differ from laypeople (pilot study). We further investigated whether either decision-certainty, knowledge, or a feeling of responsibility can be identified as potential underlying mechanism of this expertise effect. Higher decision-certainty or prior knowledge did not correlate with CIP (pilot study). In our main study, general experts significantly reduced their CIP to the same level as domain-specific experts if we induced responsibility. Without this induction general experts again showed more CIP than domain-specific experts. This implies a motivational explanation for the lower CIP in domain-specific experts. The advantage of specialized judges over general judges will be discussed. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

Science, technology, or the expert witness: What influences jurors’ judgments about forensic science testimony?


The impact of forensic science evidence on jurors’ judgments is critically important to the criminal justice system. The assignment of low or high weight to such testimony can be the difference between acquittal or conviction. Many of the traditional forensic sciences (e.g., fingerprints and bitemarks) draw their strength largely from the subjective judgments of examiners who testify about whether evidentiary prints or other markings are consistent with (or “match”) known markings from a person or object. In an online experiment (Experiment 1) and a realistic jury simulation using actual jurors or jury-eligible adults (Experiment 2), this article investigates 3 factors that might affect how jurors think about and use forensic science evidence. These factors are (a) whether the forensic science method had been scientifically tested, (b) the forensic scientist’s background and experience, and (c) the sophistication of the forensic science technology. The results show a strong and consistent effect for examiner background and experience on evidence strength judgments, no effect for forensic technology sophistication, and a limited and inconsistent effect for scientific testing (present in the online experiments, absent in the realistic jury simulation). These findings raise concerns about potential undue influence of examiner background and experience on jurors’ judgments and lack of clear influence of scientific testing. The implications of our findings for criminal justice practices and policies are considered. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

Quantifying the decline in juvenile sexual recidivism rates.


Data from several sources have indicated that violence in general (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2012; Finkelhor & Jones, 2004; Sickmund, & Puzzanchera, 2014), and sexual recidivism in adult offenders (Duwe, 2014; Helmus, 2009; Wisconsin Department of Corrections, 2015), has declined substantially in recent decades. This finding is significant because the potential effectiveness of public policies intended to reduce sexual violence in society rests in part on the base rate for re-offense of adjudicated violent offenders. This study examined whether the recidivism base rate for juvenile sexual recidivism has undergone a similar decline in recent decades. We examined 106 studies from 98 reports or data sets involving 33,783 cases of adjudicated juvenile sexual offenders that were carried out between 1938 and 2014. Results showed a weighted mean base rate for sexual recidivism of 4.92% over a mean follow-up time of 58.98 months (SD = 50.97, Median = 52.75). The year of initiation of the study predicted the sexual recidivism rate after controlling for the follow-up time (ΔF = 14.72, p = .0002). Studies conducted between 2000 and 2015 reported a weighted mean sexual recidivism rate of 2.75%; 73% lower than the rate of 10.30% reported by studies conducted between 1980 and 1995. The implications for public policies, risk assessment methods, and clinical services are discussed. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

Forensic risk assessment and cultural diversity: Contemporary challenges and future directions.


A Canadian Federal court recently impugned the administering of 5 risk assessment instruments with Canadian Aboriginal prisoners. The ramifications of the ruling for the field are notable given the universal employment of risk instruments with Indigenous offenders and patients. Effectively, forensic clinicians and researchers can no longer overlook the role of culture in risk assessment—a robust academic dialogue on this subject matter is consequently warranted. This article explores how culture can shape the entire risk assessment process; from instrument construction and validation, to risk marker sensitivity, symptom articulation, and client-clinician interaction. Future directions for cross-cultural assessment are discussed. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

Quantitative syntheses of the effects of administrative segregation on inmates’ well-being.


There is a widely held belief that the use of administrative segregation (AS) produces debilitating psychological effects; however, there are also those who assert that AS is an effective strategy for reducing prison antisocial behavior and prison violence. Given these conflicting opinions it is not surprising that the use of segregation in corrections has become a hotly debated and litigated issue. To clarify the competing perspectives, two independent meta-analytic reviews, in an unplanned systematic replication, were undertaken to determine what effect AS has on inmate’s physical and mental health functioning, as well as behavioral outcomes (e.g., recidivism). Collectively, the findings from these two meta-analytic reviews indicated that the adverse effects resulting from AS on overlapping outcomes ranged from d = 0.06 – 0.55 (i.e., small to moderate) for the time periods observed by the included studies. Moderator analyses from both investigations further reveal considerably smaller effect sizes among studies with stronger research designs compared to those with weaker designs. These results do not support the popular contention that AS is responsible for producing lasting emotional damage, nor do they indicate that AS is an effective suppressor of unwanted antisocial or criminal behavior. Rather, these findings tentatively suggest that AS may not produce any more of an iatrogenic effect than routine incarceration. Coding for these meta-analyses also revealed serious methodological gaps in the current literature. Recommendations for future research that will provide a much better understanding of the effects of AS are offered. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)