Phrenology and Statistical Risk-Assessment

With statistical risk-assessment, or Static-99, pseudo-scientists are bringing phrenology back from the dead.

Phrenology and the Headshrinkers

Phrenology is a pseudoscience that uses measurements of the human skull to determine personality traits, talents, and mental ability. This theory, developed by Franz Joseph Gall, became popular in the 19th century during the Victorian era, and its ideas would contribute to other emergent theories such as evolution and sociology. It makes no sense, but at the time it was their best predictive tool. We can’t really blame them if the practice was commonly used to decide who to set free and who to keep locked away.

Phrenology is a pseudoscience because its claims are not based in scientific fact. Although it did, in fact, have a small predictive value, the problem was that it’s a human rights issue.

Modern Pseudo-Science

Today, medical schools and universities no longer teach phrenology. Rather, we try to predict recidivism rates with statistical analysis, a technique that’s just as flawed. The test is called the Static-99. It involves a series of questions whose answers are scored from 0-3. The analyst totals the answers and the victim of the exam is given a statistical assessment of harm. This test is only used for persons with a sexual offense conviction and nothing else. Conveniently, the test is designed so you cannot score lower than a 3 based solely on having the conviction. You start the exam at a severe disadvantage.

If you were a victim of child abuse, for example, the Static-99 will evaluate your risk of recidivism to be significantly higher. Never had the opportunity to live with a lover for over 2 years? You’re dangerous. If you have any prior convictions, regardless of their nature, you’re doomed. These are just some of the factor within a long list. This exam is considered the best predictor of adult criminal recidivism among sex offenders – and it’s all guesswork. Using this analysis, civil commitment committees in Florida (read: Jimmy Ryce Act) can keep someone in jail for life… after his/her sentence is over! Nobody objects to it, except the victims of the Act or their families.

Predicting recidivism rates is far from an exact science; it’s more like trying to predict how the weather will be in 4 weeks: nobody really knows, we can only guess. The Static-99 can be seen as a tool from which an educated guess is derived. No more, no less. It’s not a scientific tool. It’s pseudo-science, just like phrenology. Science must use and produce facts; not conjecture.

The Real Death Panels

Imagine a scenario where 10 sex offenders are each assigned a 10% recidivism rate by the Static-99. The Jimmy Ryce Act committees say, “Sorry, we think one of you will commit another sex offense in the future. So, we will keep you locked up forever.” We are not in some futuristic, dystopian society, this is happening right now in Florida to hundreds of people each year.

People complete their sentences until a panel of experts decides that the offender shall remain detained in a prison-like facility, for possibly the rest of his life. Then, these people are cruelly goaded into thinking they might get out some day, only to die in prison, with very few exceptions. These civil commitment committees deprive a huge proportion of inmates of their constitutional rights with zero accountability for their actions.

Ten Pounds of Flesh

In the previous example, 9 of the 10 imaginary sex offenders will not re-offend upon release. This means that they are paying for crimes that they will never commit. Instead, one who is actually guilty of a future crime and rightfully pays for it in advance. This is what ultimately justifies keeping 9 innocents in prison.

Better that 100 innocent people rot in prison than 1 guilty man go free. Think of the children.

Modern American Code of Justice

After serving your time, you deserve no more restrictions, probation, or registry. You need to be able to get on with your life. Once your sentence is over, your debt to society should be considered paid in full.

The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers should pull back a little bit with their modern phrenology, the Static-99. The Static-99 is biased in so many ways and it’s predictive value is worthless. Like psychology, it smells like science but isn’t.


2 thoughts on “Phrenology and Statistical Risk-Assessment

  1. Christian says:

    I find that a big problem with risk assessment is that people don’t actually know how to define and differentiate different offenses. I spoke to a woman at a job fair and told her I was listed on the registry. She asked if I was on parole. I told her I hadn’t served any time and had been off probation for 4 yrs. She was confused and said,” How can a Rapist not serve any prison time”. When I told her mine was a misdemeanor internet offense, she again looked confused. “ Then why are you on that registry, you’re not a sex offender”.
    My point is, the public hasn’t a clue of what makes someone an “offender”. The risk assessment only further confuses the issue.

    1. CollateralDamage says:

      Hi Christian. Thanks for this story. I like concrete and authentic examples. I took the nickname CollateralDamage for the website precisely cause I wanted a name well representing the fact that we are all collateral victims of this justice system that’s using a cannon to kill a mosquito. This woman you talked about is also a victim. If the law makes her think you must be a rapist, there was a rape indeed. Her perceptions were raped.

      It’s nice when a dialogue can sort things out like you did with this nice woman. But most of the times, people on the registry need to hide that fact. It’s very sensible information. Freedom of speech for people labelled as sex offenders is extremely limited.

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