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Forensic experts and sentencing for sex offense convictions

Professionalism is deeply ingrained in psychologists who evaluate criminal suspects. The commitment to uphold standards of objective, unbiased analysis is deeply valued by all licensed psychologists. And that certainly includes forensic psychologists who provide expert opinions about criminal defendants.

A recent research study found, however, that eliminating bias requires more than merely good intentions. The study found that forensic psychologists who were told they were working for the prosecution came to significantly different conclusions than those who were told they were working for the defense.

The study is potentially applicable to many different types of criminal sentences. Sentencing those convicted of violent sex offense charges, in particular, often involves expert testimony about the likelihood of re-offense.

In the recent study, researchers approached 99 psychologists and psychiatrists who work in the criminal forensic field. The researchers said they wanted help evaluating cases.

Half of the experts were told they their fees would be paid by the prosecution. The other half were told they were being employed by the defense.

The case files involved were real, though the opinions offered by the forensic experts in the study were not used in actual court cases. The cases were such, however, that previous studies had shown were straightforward enough so that psychologists who were not in a court setting would generally agree on the findings.

And yet the forensic experts in the study differed significantly in their conclusions. It is no great surprise, perhaps, that even psychologists should somehow know which side their bread is buttered on. But this research does only suggest how difficult it is to achieve objectivity.

It also points to how pervasively the adversarial model for developing cases permeates the American justice system.

Source: Popsci, "Researchers Expose Troubling Bias in Forensic Psychology," Francie Diep, August 28, 2013

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