Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Reader and Advisor?

I don't know how it's playing in the wide world, but the tabloids in the northeast, and for that matter the front page of the New York Times, have been much occupied by a horrific crime that happened in Cheshire, Connecticut last week. Two career criminals, on parole, invaded a home in an affluent bedroom community and went on a rampage of rape and murder that left two girls and their mother dead. The father, no doubt unfortunately from his point of view, escaped. The details of the crime, as described in the Times, are so depraved that I won't describe them for you.

The howls of outrage from the right have also been so predictable that you can probably write them for yourself. I happened to flip past Glenn Beck, on my way to the rebroadcast of the Daily Show, and he was yelling, literally, about the idiots on the parole board who let these guys out of jail.

Well, y'know what? It's not that simple. Neither of the psychopaths in question had any known history of violence whatever. One was a house burglar, and the other did smash and grab robberies from cars. Sorry to give you the news Glenn, but we can't lock up every burglar for life. It would cost more than, well, the war in Iraq, in other words we're talking Big Government, which I'm sure is not what you want. And the absolute worst thing we could do would be to eliminate parole, which means just dumping criminals onto the street without any period of supervision or reintegration. In fact, Connecticut was pretty diligent in this case. Both of them had a period of closely supervised release in a halfway house, including electronic monitoring. One of them had just had the monitoring bracelet removed two days before the savagery erupted.

Steven Hoge, MD, director of the division of forensic psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, in New York City, tells JAMA's Lynne Lamberg in the August 1 issue that clinicians, at best, do little better than chance at predicting who will commit violence in the future. Violence is associated with severe mental disorders, but neither of the Cheshire suspects has been diagnosed with mental illness. One putatively predictive tool, the Historical, Clinical, and Risk Management 20-item checklist, includes items such as previous violence, young age of first violence, and non-compliance with treatment, and it apparently has some predictive value, but it appears that it would have rated these particular individuals as unlikely to commit violence.

Anyway, you can't incarcerate people because of what you believe they might do in the future. This was a disturbing, horrific event and of course everybody wishes there were some way to prevent it. But as far as I can tell, there just wasn't a whole lot that anybody could have done.

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