Testing for Psychopathy

Did you know that, before certain California inmates may appear before a parole board, a state psychologist first evaluates the inmate to determine whether he or she is a psychopath? And even more interesting, did you know that there is actually a test — the Psychopathy Checklist—Revised (PCL-R)  — that is designed to measure psychopathy? Well, it’s all true. But, as NPR reports, the use of the test in the criminal justice system has come under more intense criticism in recent years, with the test’s creator among the critics.

Psychopathy is condition that has been recognized for centuries, but the term itself has been widely and loosely applied. In the 1980s, Robert D. Hare, Ph.D. (recognized as the leading expert on psychopathy) developed a diagnostic tool referred to as the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL). The PCL is now in its second edition, called the Psychopathy Checklist—Revised (PCL-R).

Historically, researchers considered psychopathy to be a property that a person either has or doesn’t have. The PCL-R is not a measure of the degree to which someone has psychopathy, but rather a measure of the likelihood that someone has it.

According to the NPR article, Dr. Hare was initially concerned about the use of his test in the criminal justice system, because he “feared that the test, created purely for research purposes, might be used incorrectly in the real world and could hurt people.”

His fears were realized in the story of Robert Dixon, Jr., described in the NPR article. Dixon was found to have a high score on the PCL-R test, i.e., to be a psychopath, and is now very unlikely to be paroled despite no other evidence of psychopathy.

Dr. Hare blames the problems of his test when used in the real-world on the bias of psychologists being paid for their opinions by the prosecution, as well as the psychologists’ lack of training.

In fact, special training is required to score the PCL-R, with a certification process to become a PCL-R evaluator. But there are some who question whether any amount of training would be sufficient. The enormous effect of the psychopath label cannot be overemphasized.  As the NPR article sums it up

After all, once someone is labeled as a psychopath, what can you do with him? Nothing but lock him away.

On parole hearings generally, turn to CEB’s California Criminal Law Procedure and Practice, chap 47. Issues of mental competence in criminal cases are covered in chapter 48.
© The Regents of the University of California, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

3 Responses

  1. It is interesting that lie detector tests are not admissible in court (to the best of my knowledge) but this type of checklist is.

    • Thanks for the comment. Actually, polygraph (lie detector) test results are admissible at trial or at any pretrial or postconviction hearings, including juvenile hearings, if their admission is stipulated to by both the prosecution and the defense. Evid C §351.1. Also, there is no prohibition against their admissibility in civil cases or juvenile dependency cases.

      For more information on the use of polygraph test results in criminal cases, check out California Criminal Law Procedure and Practice, section 23.39.

  2. Actually most sociopaths can pass a lie detector, keep your eyes open they are everywhere!! good post, I am currently doing a case study on a death row inmate convicted at 18 of capital murder, using a P.O.B the institution says death row inmates have no access to computers but it doesn’t mean his outside friends don’t, at least he is half the country away, still I will watch my back they tend to gravitate to each other, thank god death row inmates are in individual cells and not in general population.

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