Predicting Violent Behavior

The killing of four Seattle police officers by a man with a long history of violent behavior again raises the issue of releasing people from jail or other institutions who have been incarcerated because of violent crimes. The putative killer in the Washington murders, Maurice Clemmons, was shot and killed by a policeman today. His 108 year sentence for “a teen age crime spree”had been commuted by then Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. This is not the first time a criminal released by Huckabee has subsequently committed another violent crime. As governor Huckabee was a serial commuter. Clemmons who reportedly was telling people that he was Jesus had been recently examined by a psychiatrist and found to be competent. Apparently, he was also involved in a rape.

This unfortunate episode highlights the difficulty in predicting violent behavior. If you have a violent offender in custody how do you know if it’s safe to release him? The short answer is that there’s no reliable way to predict violent behavior. More than 20 years ago a study (I don’t have it handy – if I can find it I’ll post it or link to it) gave case histories of people with a history of violent behavior to a group of psychologists and psychiatrists. The same cases were given to a group of secretaries. Both groups were asked the likelihood of subsequent violent behavior. The secretaries did significantly better than the psychologists and psychiatrists. This shows the lack of any real science which would allow us to know beforehand who will continue to be violent as opposed to those who will give it up.

The closest guide we have to the future is the past and it certainly is a crude blueprint. Those who have the power to release or detain someone who has been violent have no real way of knowing what they’re doing. If they release the offender and are wrong some poor innocent(s) pays the price. If they’re wrong and keep a violent offender under lock and key only the criminal who may have gone straight pays the price for a wrong guess. This is a field where there is no such thing as expert opinion because there is no expertise in this area.

These decisions are difficult. People of good will, like Huckabee, often let their sense of man’s redemption obscure common sense. People who have been violent are at the highest risk to be so again. As hard as it may been in doubtful cases (which is virtually all of them) the safest decision is to keep violent offenders imprisoned for as long as the law permits. People are dead and lives are ruined because Huckabee made a bad decision no matter how well intentioned.

Later today  Huckabee said: “I take full responsibility for my actions of nine years ago. I acted on the facts presented to me in 2000. If I could have possibly known what Clemmons would do nine years later, I obviously would have made a different decision. But if the same file was presented to me today, I would have likely made the same decision.” Having bet on the side of the criminal in 2000 the former governor would still place the innocent in jeopardy. The quality of mercy is strained.

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