What if you could predict the behavior of any given inmate? And what would you do with that knowledge?
Beginning August 2018, the University of South Florida’s Departments of Criminology and Psychology will collaborate with the Pasco County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office on a project that’s the first of its kind in the world.
Researchers will interview, collect psychological and behavioral data and perform risk assessments on every inmate who comes into the Pasco County Jail. Then they will track the level of psychopathy—a mental disorder categorized by a lack of empathy, egocentric behavior and violence, among other traits—for each offender. The goal is to identify people who might be at high risk for violence and criminality and get them therapy and treatment in jail, in the hope this will prevent future misconduct, both within the facility and when they are released.
A&E True Crime spoke about the scope of the project with the co-Principal Investigator on the project, Bryanna Fox, Ph.D, a former research fellow in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, who is currently an assistant professor of criminology at the University of South Florida (USF). Fox is working on the project with USF clinical psychology professor Edelyn Verona, Ph.D.
What is the scope of your new research and what is unique about it?
We are going to be evaluating all inmates that come in through the Pasco County jail and want to compare people who are arrested for domestic violence to people who are arrested for burglary to people who are arrested for murder.
We are going to evaluate psychopathy among them to see what things may be unique to each type of offender and what things may predict different types of offending behaviors. This will help [determine] if we can use that information in the future to prevent these crimes from occurring.
Is this new project building upon previous areas of research?
There are two areas of research we are building upon. The first is research done by the FBI on infamous killers to understand why people commit these heinous crimes. Through it, they got valuable information by going directly to the crime offenders and asking them things about themselves and their backgrounds versus having a hypothesis about why people commit these crimes and not really getting it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.
The second is research done by criminal psychology. By adding extra measures, which include things like psychopathy and personality assessment and childhood trauma—things that back in [the] 1970s when the FBI first started their data collection were either not prevalent or developed—we are going to be administering clinical-risk assessments to all the inmates, as well as psychological tests and other measures of their background. [We want] to try to get an objective measure of what may have led them to commit the crimes they did.
What are some of the methodological tools you will use?
The most prominent tool we are going to use is the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). We will do an interview with the offenders and then evaluate how well or how high they score on the PCL-R, which is known to be one of the best predictors of criminality, recidivism and violence.
That’s really useful because, immediately, if we see somebody scoring very high on the PCL-R—regardless of the crime they are charged with—indicating high risk of certain types of behaviors, we will convey that to the jail, and they are much more likely to be assigned to the high-security areas within the jail. We will also recommend treatment and therapy for inmates based upon other issues identified in the assessments, to help treat them while in jail and prevent recidivism and misconduct.
Other assessments include suicide and risk inventories, and evaluations of their backgrounds and trauma in childhood, since we know the most severe offenders typically have had a very traumatic childhood.
What are some of the questions on the PCL-R questionnaire?
The PCL-R is comprised of 20 items, which fall into four broad categories called “Facets.” Facet 1, the Interpersonal Facet, will ask questions related to traits like grandiose sense of self-worth or pathological lying.
The Affective Facet will try to see whether inmates show lack of remorse or empathy among others;
Whether inmates indulge in things like a parasitic lifestyle or exhibit a constant need for stimulation, promiscuous sexual behavior and lots of impulsivity will be revealed by questions of the Lifestyle Facet.
Facet 4, the Antisocial Facet, will look at characteristics like poor behavioral control, juvenile delinquency and criminal versatility.
In the context of psychopathy, how will you control for lying?
Since pathological lying is so characteristic of psychopaths, it’s really important that we don’t just rely on whatever the interviewee tells us. We also typically don’t ask direct questions, such as ‘Are you a pathological liar?’ or ‘Do you fail to accept responsibility for your actions?’ Instead, we ask questions that indirectly get to the interviewee’s character and events in their life.
For instance, asking why they are in jail, we get to hear their side of the story, and compare it to the arrest report in the file. Sometimes there are minor discrepancies, which aren’t indicative of pathological lying. In one conversation with a psychopath, he completely misrepresented the entire fact pattern surrounding his case. In some ways he was exaggerating his criminality and ‘toughness,’ and also shifting blame entirely to the victim and others—despite it being clear the victim was a stranger and did nothing to deserve it.
It takes a lot of training and experience to be able to assess the validity of each of these items, and even then we always have two raters in every interview to compare how two trained interviewers rate the same person. Sometimes people pick up on different things, so by having measures of inter-rater reliability, we ensure the accuracy of our assessments increases. Many of us also learn a lot about body language, non-verbal and verbal indicators of deception to help identify if someone is lying.
Were there any ethical concerns about the project? How smooth was the process to get it off the ground?
We had to get permission from the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail our research will be conducted in. We also had to get an approval from the University of South Florida and we had to go through a process called the Institutional Review Board, which reviewed every single thing we wanted to do with the inmates and made sure we aren’t taking advantage of them, harming or traumatizing them or doing anything inappropriate to them during our research.
It was really difficult to get the project off the ground because we are doing research on actual people, which is really challenging because you have to get their consent. Based off the Belmont Report which came out after the Nuremberg trials, inmates are a protected population. When you want to do research on a protected population, such as inmates, you have to go through a lot more approvals than if you were just doing research on, say, chemicals.
When should we expect the first findings from your research?
The project is never-ending, but maybe next summer. We will probably have at least 400 to 500 cases done by then.