By David S. Prescott, LICSW, Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., & Alissa Ackerman, Ph.D.
Nothing divides the professional and academic community who work in the field of sexual abuse quite like the polygraph. It is a debate that has gone on internationally for decades. A fascinating wrinkle in policy and the law recently came to the authors’ attention. In at least one state in the USA, there is a policy holding that people on probation cannot be sent back to prison for failing a polygraph examination; which makes sense given the status of the research around the polygraph and its admissibility in court. However, in this state, the same people can be sent back to prison if the examiner believes they have deliberately manipulated the results of the test. This has resulted in at least one examiner expressing certainty that many of his examinees have tried to influence the results, with many of them becoming incarcerated because of the examiner’s belief. Which highlights the main issue that the polygraph faces, that there are a multitude of different audiences (public, judiciary, professionals, academics, etc) all with different attitudes, experiences, evidence bases and strongly held views around it.
We want to be clear that this is more a problem of how professionals use or even abuse the power that they have over clients/examinees than it is about the polygraph itself, although empirically separating the effects of the polygraph from the examiner may be more complicated than many would think. The good news is that the Department of Corrections in that state is having a fresh look at its policies. The bad news is the context of professionals believing in their approach to the detriment of their clients. In some cases, one wonders how much deception by the examiner in the process is acceptable given the potential costs and lack of truly informed consent. These kinds of ethical questions certainly exist elsewhere, but rarely get the attention they deserve with vulnerable populations such as those for whom basic liberties are in the balance.
To put all of this into perspective, it can be useful to review what research has shown time and again: Punishment on its own neither reduces risk nor deters crime. While many questions about treatment remain debatable, people who complete treatment programs emerge at lower risk. Community supervision can also further reduce risk, and yet there is still no credible evidence that the polygraph, as currently applied, is improving outcomes, except in the opinions of its adherents.
This, in turn leads to further questions. When we apply the polygraph as described above, with examiners being able to send people to prison so easily, at what point are we not only interfering with methods that would promote community safety, but also denying justice? (as a side note, it is important to note that others in our field, including therapists, can also wield undue negative influence under the wrong conditions).
We then need to turn to other questions, such as what our goals actually are? Are we using the available methods to reduce risk? Build better lives? Assist those who have been abused? Or continue the punishment? Our belief is that punishment is punishment and rehabilitation is rehabilitation, and that when we confuse the two, neither can be entirely effective.
Finally, there is a real question of the polygraph’s best use. Does a sexual history polygraph really provide as much information as one might hope or is an examination into whether someone is basically following the rules help them – and the community – more. Do other methods, such as polygraphing people on their thoughts and fantasies simply muddy the waters through a belief that one’s fantasies equals their future behavior”?
Additionally, we would also encourage a consideration of how the polygraph is used internationally. While the polygraph is not necessarily an example of American exceptionalism, it might as well be because most other countries internationally do not use the polygraph in the same way, with the same frequency or with it having the same impact in the criminal justice system as in the USA. For example, in the UK the polygraph was only introduced in 2014 for high risk individuals, it is by no means used with all people that have committed a sexual offence, and is not admissible in court. Whereas in other countries, like Australia, Israel, Sweden and New Zealand (to name a few) the polygraph is not used with individuals that have committed a sexual offence.
Unfortunately, recent dialog has focused more on choosing sides – for and against the polygraph – than sorting through the various issues and balancing them against the human rights of each client or examinee. We must keep in mind, in our desire to discover the truth and seek answers from those that commit sexual abuse, that the consequences of false positive (as well as the resulting conviction and related outcomes) can be significant for victims and the accused.
Perhaps before we can answer questions about the polygraph, it is better that we return to the basic questions of why we do this work and what all our science tells us about the way people become safer and grow beyond their traumatic experiences.