Page last updated at 12:16 GMT, Monday, 9 February 2009

Psychopaths' 'early release con'

Gaining release may be easier for psychopaths

Psychopathic criminals are more likely to be released from prison than non-psychopaths, even though they are more likely to re-offend, a study suggests.

The Canadian research says psychopaths can charm and deceive prison staff and parole boards.

Psychopathy, a severe form of personality disorder, is characterised by superficial charm, pathological lying and a lack of remorse.

UK expert said psychologists were now on psychopaths' parole boards.

We need to acknowledge that psychopathy is largely unchangeable
Dr Stephen Porter, researcher
The study, published in the journal Legal and Criminological Psychology looked at 300 men who spent at least two years in a Canadian prison between 1995 and 1997.

Ninety of them were classed as being psychopathic.

The psychopaths had committed significantly more offences (both violent and non-violent), and psychopathic child abusers had far more charges and convictions than non-psychopathic offenders.

The researchers from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia found psychopathic offenders were around 2.5 times more likely to have been given a conditional release than undiagnosed offenders.

And on average, psychopaths offended again, and were returned to prison after one year, compared with two for non-psychopaths.

Dr Stephen Porter, who led the research, said: "Psychopathic offenders are far more likely to re-offend, so they should be far less likely to be released.

"However, we found that psychopathic criminals were in fact highly successful in their bids for freedom."

He said the study findings were still "highly relevant".

Good show

"In Canada, it has common for mental health professionals, psychologists, criminologists, and other legal professionals to be included on parole boards for at least a decade.

"Research by several groups internationally has established that such professionals generally are no better than laypersons in detecting deception, at least without specialised training.

"Psychopaths are so adept at "putting on a good show" and using crocodile tears that they can be convincing to psychologists as well as other professionals.

"They use non-verbal behaviour, a "gift of gab", and persuasive emotional displays to put on an Oscar award winning performance and move through the correctional system and ultimately parole boards relatively quickly, despite their known diagnosis."

He said training for parole boards and psychologists needed to change.

"We need to acknowledge that training in this area is essential and that objective file information is much more reliable than trying to assess performance in an interview context.

"Further, we need to acknowledge that psychopathy is largely unchangeable.

"It isn't possible to miraculously create a 'conscience' in adults who have not had a conscience previously.

"It's the cold, hard truth. Acting ability should not be a criterion for release."

'Doubly hard to convince'

Luisa Williams, a forensic psychologist at Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Trust, said: "Although we know that psychopathy is correlated with deception and we have tools which can measure the construct of psychopathy, measuring deception in itself remains a more arduous task.

"Ultimately, the acid test of whether an offender will re-offend lies only in their future behaviour."

Susan Bryne, a consultant forensic clinical psychologist and British Psychological Society spokeswoman, said parole boards in the UK were awareness of psychopathic manipulation had grown over the last decade.

"Many panels making decisions about release of this group of prisoners would have a psychologist as a panel member to advise on these issues. In the UK psychologists first were recruited to the Parole Board in 2003."

She said similar research would need to be done in the UK to establish the numbers of psychopaths and non-psychopaths who secure release from Parole Boards.

A spokesman for the Parole Board for England and Wales added: "We are well aware that anyone diagnosed as a psychopath might be showing such apparent improvement and we would therefore be doubly hard to convince that such improvement is genuine in their case."

"Our parole board members are aware that psychopaths may attempt to present in an overly positive manner and exercise caution when examining the evidence."

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