Predicting violence in psychopaths is 'no more than chance'

Tue Oct 1, 2013 4:20pm EDT
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By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) - Assessment tools used to predict how likely a psychopathic prisoner is to re-offend if freed from jail are "utterly useless" and parole boards might just as well flip a coin when deciding such risks, psychiatrists said on Tuesday.

Publishing a study that found risk score tools are only around 46 percent accurate on how likely psychopathic convicts are to kill, rape or assault again, they said probation officers and judges should set little or no store by such tests.

They warned that clinicians carrying out such classifications must be aware of their severe limitations, and make sure prisoners undergo comprehensive psychiatric diagnosis before any risks assessment is made.

"If you apply these (tests) to somebody who is a psychopath, they're utterly useless, you might as well toss a coin," said Jeremy Coid, director of the forensic psychiatry research unit at Queen Mary University of London who led the study.

"They will not predict accurately at all," he told reporters at a briefing in London about his findings.

Coid and other forensic psychiatrists say the findings - which also showed the tools perform only moderately well in prisoners with disorders like schizophrenia, depression, drug and alcohol dependence - could have major implications for risk assessment in criminal justice systems.

"There are increasing expectations of public protection from violent behavior, and psychiatrists can be seriously criticized if they make wrong decisions," he said.

Seena Fazel, a consultant forensic psychiatrist at Britain's University of Oxford, said the reliability of the tests' predictive ability was so low that it might be best not to use them at all - and warned that at the very least, their results should only be noted by parole boards, rather than acted upon.   Continued...