Monday, April 23, 2018

Should Psychologists Be Involved In Capital Punishment?

The question of whether it is ethically permissible for forensic psychologists to conduct evaluations of defendants in capital offense cases pertains to standard 1.02 of the APA code of ethics. Standard 1.02, which regulates conflicts between legal authority and professional ethics, obliges psychologists to inform the authorities in question about the conflict, their commitment to the APA code of ethics, and try to resolve the conflict in compliance with the general principles of the ethics code (Fisher, 2017). Furthermore, standard 1.02 prohibits psychologists from participating in any state sanctioned activities that may be used to rationalize human rights violations (2017). This last dictum was added to standard 1.02 in 2010 following the conclusion of an investigation into coordination between some APA staff members and DOD psychologists who provided guidance on torture techniques (Fisher, 2017). This amendment of standard 1.02 has brought other controversial psychologist roles into contention. In particular, some have called into question whether clinical psychologists should be involved in evaluating defendants who could face the death penalty. Fisher argues that the deeply flawed death penalty procedures and the inherent fallibility of psychological tests exacerbates the inequities in capital punishment that sometimes puts innocent people on death row (Fisher, 2013). To the contrary, Brodsky, Neal and Jones argue that the involvement of forensic psychologists helps prevent human rights violations by reducing the arbitrariness of death penalty proceedings and adding an assessment that ‘may divert defendants from the criminal justice process to the mental health system (Brodsky, Neal, and Jones, 2013, p.64).

Capital punishment could be considered a human rights violation because the flawed criminal justice processes sometimes puts innocent people on death row. Since 1973, at least 102 inmates sentenced to death have been subsequently exonerated (Fisher, 2013). Furthermore, defendants who are racial minorities and have low socioeconomic status tend to receive the death penalty more frequently than white, middle class defendants who commit the same crime, suggesting that capital punishment procedures are highly skewed by racial and class biases (Fisher, 2013). Both discrimination and punishment of innocent people constitute grave human rights violations that psychologist should not participate in. The psychological evaluation of defendants is undermined by the fact that most test results for cognitive disability and other mental disorders are probabilistic in nature - they only establish the likelihood that the defendant has one or mental disorders that impair competency based on the similarity of their scores to those already diagnosed with the disorder in question (Fisher, 2013). For instance, IQ scores and adaptive skills are used to assess mental retardation, a condition which makes a death sentence constitutionally unviable. The U.S. Supreme Court prohibited death sentences for defendants with mental retardation in Atkins v. Virginia, but failed to define the term (Fisher, 2013). In psychiatry, it is diagnosed as an intellectual disability and requires, along with current below average intelligence and a lack of adaptive skills necessary for independent living, a documented history of the two deficits prior to 18 years of age (Fisher, 2013). This would generally be difficult if not impossible for defendants from low socioeconomic backgrounds because children raised in poverty are usually never evaluated for intellectual or developmental disabilities and their academic and medical records tend to be sparse compared to children in higher socioeconomic brackets (Fisher, 2013).

Capital punishment in and of itself is not a human rights violation. It could be reasonably argued that defendants forfeit their human rights by violating the human rights of their victims (Brodsky, Neal and Jones, 2013). Furthermore, there are numerous legal mechanisms in place that can be used to correct errors in capital offense cases such as direct appellate review, federal habeas corpus petitions, and the consideration of mitigating factors during the sentencing phase (Brodsky, Neal and Jones, 2013). Clinical psychologists, for their own part as expert witnesses, provide information to judges and jurors that could counteract their prejudices and help save innocent people from being sent to death row. For instance, psychologists can provide information about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony based on how human memory changes over time (Brodsky, Neal and Jones, 2013). This would engender a healthy skepticism towards the credibility of eyewitness testimony (Brodsky, Neal and Jones, 2013). Psychologists also take on a neutral role when they become involved in capital offense cases (Brodsky, Neal and Jones, 2013). They are usually retained by a neutral court, but when they are retained by the prosecution or defendant, they only provide information about the defendant’s mental state without making conclusions about the sentencing (Brodsky, Neal and Jones, 2013). For these reasons, psychologist’s participation in death penalty cases should be seen not as an activity that justifies human rights violations, but as one that protects human rights. For instance, competency assessments can provide evidence of psychopathology or intellectual disability that could save some defendants from execution and get them the proper treatment they need (Brodsky, Neal and Jones, 2013). Brodsky, Neal, and Jones only object to the use of psychotherapy to restore convicted defendants’ competency for execution, but otherwise regard their involvement as something that should not be out right prohibited (2013).

A provision which prohibits psychologists from conducting competency for execution assessments may be objected to on the grounds that it does not directly implicate the psychologist in the execution. One argument for it being unethical is that the only purpose of these assessments is to aid the state in determining whether to kill the convicted (Bonnie, 1990). However, as Bonnie notes, a psychologist’s role in the competency for execution assessment is not clearly distinguishable from their other roles in the criminal justice process such as in evaluating whether prisoners should be placed in a mental health facility or whether they are fit for parole (1990). Furthermore, there is no qualitative difference between their sentencing evaluations in death penalty cases and their sentencing evaluations in non-death penalty cases (Bonnie, 1990).

Rather than outright prohibiting psychologists from participating in capital offense cases, the APA should allow individual psychologists to use their own discretion in deciding whether their involvement would be contrary to the general principles. Yes, the legal proceedings for death penalty cases are deeply flawed and prone to racial and class bias, but there are numerous legal safeguards, such as appellate review and federal habeas corpus petitions, to protect innocent and incompetent defendants, and the psychologist’s role here is to provide an objective framework for evaluating whether defendants are competent to stand trial and/or be executed. Therefore, the psychologist’s role in death penalty cases is one that helps protect human rights not one that justifies their violation


Bonnie, R. J. (1990). Dilemmas in administering the death penalty: Conscientious abstention, professional ethics, and the needs of the legal system. Law And Human Behavior, 14(1), 67-90. doi:10.1007/BF01055790

Brodsky, S. L., Neal, T. S., & Jones, M. A. (2013). A reasoned argument against banning psychologists' involvement in death penalty cases. Ethics & Behavior, 23(1), 62-66. doi:10.1080/10508422.2013.757954

Fisher, C. B. (2013). Human rights and psychologists' involvement in assessments related to death penalty cases. Ethics & Behavior, 23(1), 58-61. doi:10.1080/10508422.2013.749761

Fisher, C. B. (2017). Standards for resolving ethical issues. In Decoding the ethics code: A practical guide for psychologists (4th ed., pp. 205-224). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Utah Highway Patrol Stole $500,000 From Innocent Man

Source: Fox 13 Salt Lake City, Utah Property Protection Act

In 2016, Utah Highway Patrol pulled over Kyle Savely for tailgating another vehicle. For some reason, UHP called out a drug dog that “alerted” them, but it turned out to be a false positive. Although there were no drugs in Mr. Savely’s vehicle, but they did find a bag with $500,000 and stole it under using the rationalization that it could possibly be linked to a crime. Utah Highway Patrol handed the money over to the federal government because supposedly there was an active DEA investigation. In reality, they handed the cash over to the feds so they could keep 80% of the funds and avoid having to provide clear and convincing evidence that it was subject to forfeiture under the Utah Property Protection Act of 2000. Even if Utah Highway Patrol had clear and convincing evidence that Mr. Savely’s cash was criminal proceeds they would not be allowed to keep since the Utah Property Protection Act mandates that all revenue from asset forfeiture be contributed to the Utah Uniform School Fund. Mr. Savely was also acquitted of the minor traffic violation they detained him for and the DEA investigation turned up empty handed, to no one’s surprise. So it looks like they pulled him over on a specious pretext to steal his money.

'The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber.....The proceedings of those robbers and murderers, who call themselves the government, are directly the opposite of these of the single highwayman.'

-Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority VI

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

California May Compensate Victims of Their Eugenics Programme


From 1909 to 1979, the state of California forcible sterilized 20,000 residents deemed genetically inferior by the state.The victims of this state programme include Rose Zaballos, who was forcibly sterilized at the direction of her older brother in 1939 and died as a result of the operation.California was not alone in their efforts to weed out undesirables and breed a master race. Across the country, 32 states, including my own, adopted similar measures to sterilize people with mental illnesses, physical disabilities, racial minorities, and people deemed to exhibit abnormal behavior by the government. 60,000 people were forcibly sterilized from the early 20th century to the late to mid 70’s. California abolished it’s programme in 1979, publicly apologized for it in 2003, and is now considering paying out reparations for it’s victims under Senate Bill 1190. There are currently estimated to be 800 living victims of the eugenics programme. The passage of this bill would make California the third state to provide reparations for the victims of the eugenics movement, following in the footsteps of North Carolina and Virginia.

Monday, April 16, 2018

DAPL Journalists Still Awaiting Trial


Six of the ten journalists arrested during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in late 2016 early 2017 are still awaiting criminal trial in Morton County, North Dakota. Jenni Monet, a journalist who does freelance work for multiple news outlets and is one of the six still awaiting trial was charged with criminal trespass and rioting, but has yet to receive her arrest report. She was arrested while leaving a protester camp, strip searched and held for thirty hours in a chain link cage with 19 protestors. Her cohort, LaFleur-Vetter, who does photography for the Guardian, was arrested on similar charges on October 22, 2016, while filming a prayer march, but has since been acquitted. This brings up two concerns: the sixth amendment guarantee of a speedy trial and most importantly the first amendment guarantee to freedom of the press. Don’t get me wrong. I am not under any delusion that the federal and state governments will actually honor their “social contract” with us. That is an article of faith I no longer believe in. I brought this up because it demonstrates that we are worse off than what we imagined. All of the journalists arrested were freelance journalists who actually covered the protest. The local journalists who stayed behind police lines and stuck to the official government narrative were left alone. Sure they were trespassing on government property, a particular piece of land claimed by the Army Corps, but the federal government claims to own 30% of the continental land mass and state, municipal, and county governments own the rest. Under the federalist regime any unwanted protesters or journalists could be deemed to be trespassing or causing public disorder at the drop of a hat, and the constitution’s bill of rights would be completely worthless in protecting them.

Ethics of Theistic Therapy

According to Fisher, religious and spiritual practices are typically implemented into therapy along a secular-theistic therapy continuum (2017). At one extreme are religiously sensitive therapies that combine a purely clinical approach to therapy with a tolerance and acceptance for the diverse religious and spiritual beliefs of clients (Fisher, 2017). At the other end of the spectrum are theistic therapies that utilize the religious and spiritual beliefs, practices, and texts of the client and therapist during treatment (Fisher, 2017). Between these two extremes are religiously accommodative therapies that utilize religious vernacular and practices that are drawn from the client’s faith to facilitate their mental health goals (Fisher, 2017). The subject of this paper will be the second category, theistic therapy, and the ethical restraints and guidelines that psychotherapists must following when implementing it.

Several obvious concerns come to the forefront. Without delving into the details of the subject one would immediately question a therapist’s competence in handling something as sensitive as religious belief given the various and subtle nuances that exist even within the same religion. Another immediately obvious concern is the slippery slope that religious beliefs and practices could completely supplant the evidence based clinical approach. Fisher echoes such concerns by pointing out the indispensability of professional mental health knowledge (2017). A third apparent concern is that some therapist may use the cover of theistic therapy to impose their religious or spiritual values, beliefs and practices on clients. This one would be a significant concern in ethics since it strikes at the very foundation of professional ethics: the informed consent doctrine shared by both psychological and medical practitioners. These three obvious concerns, and several less obvious concerns, can be addressed within the pre-established categories of the APA code of ethics. The use of religious beliefs, texts, and practices within the context of therapy also has the potential to establish multiple relationships between the therapist and client, which is already discouraged and often outright prohibited by standard 3.05 of the APA code of ethics. As mentioned earlier, the imposition of religious or spiritual values, beliefs or practices already constitutes a fundamental violation of informed consent, and incompetence in the implementation of religious techniques and practices is already regulated under standard 2.01, which establishes the boundaries of practitioner competence, but there are less obvious ethical concerns to address. As Richards and Bergin mention in A Spiritual Strategy for Counseling and Psychotherapy, seeing clients from the same church or congregation as the therapist may lead to the unintentional leaking of a client’s confidential information, violating standard 4.01 of the APA ethics code (1997). Similar concerns can be found when therapist use their religious values to confront their client’s lifestyle choices. Condemnation of clients for their lifestyle choices could break their trust in the therapist and bring them undue harm, which is contrary to the general principle of beneficence (Richards and Bergin, 1997). If the client is of a different faith than the therapist, particularly a minority faith, it could be unfair discrimination, which is a violation of standard 3.01. None of this implies that theistic therapy is infeasible, but it is a grey area that therapist should approach with caution by following a handful of guidelines that protect the client from harm and exploitation.

There are several precautions that therapist can take to implement theistic therapy and spiritual interventions while remaining in compliance with the code of ethics. One step that therapists can take, that is often ignored by mainstream psychotherapists, is to collaborate and consult with the client’s ecclesiastical leader whenever they implement any religious or spiritual elements (Richards and Bergin, 1997). Therapists who use theistic therapy run the risk of usurping the ecclesiastical leader's authority and assuming the dual role of both psychotherapist and religious leader, which constitutes an unethical multiple relationship (Richards and Bergin, 1997). Collaborating and consulting with the client’s ecclesiastical leader allows therapists to establish firm boundaries between these two roles and helps therapists better assist clients in meeting their mental health and spiritual needs. Furthermore, as Richards and Bergin note, religious communities can provide benefits that therapy alone cannot provide (1997). For instance, religious communities can alleviate social isolation, which is major factor in preventing suicide (Richards and Bergin, 1997). Religious communities can also provide financial and employment assistance and help clients find meaning in their lives (Richards and Bergin, 1997). Regardless of the benefits of collaborating with clients’ ecclesiastical leaders, therapists should always get the expressed permission of their clients to contact their religious leaders and affirm this permission upon initial contact.

Insensitivity to diverse religious traditions, imposition of one’s religious values, beliefs, or practices and unfair discrimination against certain religions can be avoided by learning about the diverse cultural backgrounds of their clients and exploring how their own cultural identities affect their beliefs about therapy (Weld and Eriksen, 2007). Some behaviors that therapists may think are friendly and benign could be forms of proselytizing that make clients uncomfortable and less willing to share their problems with therapists. Proselytizing includes giving clients literature about one’s religious sect or spiritual beliefs, inviting clients to attend religious services, and teaching clients about one’s belief system when it is irrelevant to the client’s mental health goals (Richards and Bergin, 1997). One step that therapists can take to avoid offending clients is to make sure they work within the client’s belief system when they pray with them or encourage them to pray (Weld and Eriksen, 2007). Similarly, condemnation of clients’ lifestyle choices can cross the thin line between moral confrontation and religious imposition (Richards and Bergin, 1997). For this reason, Richards and Bergin recommend that therapists inform clients about the physical, mental and spiritual consequences of their behavior and the risks they take in continuing this behavior (1997). Clients that do not share the same faith as their therapists may engage in certain behaviors that are integral to their faith, but which their therapists consider spiritually harmful. For instance, a Christian therapist may view a wiccan client’s spell casting as playing with fire. In such instances, it would be best to focus on the common ground between therapist and client and suggest practical ways that the client can go about meeting their mental health goals. Weld and Eriksen recommend that therapists examine the values inherent in their own counseling process to further manage and assess their client’s expression of values and beliefs (2007). This could include discussing their own perspective on prayer with their clients (Weld and Eriksen, 2007).

Confidentiality is perhaps as fundamental in a therapeutic relationship as a client’s trust in their therapist. In fact, the two are inseparable. Therapists that serve members of their own congregation or religious organization run the risk of breaching client confidentiality. Their interaction with clients in multiple settings makes it less likely for them to remember where they learned certain information about their clients (Richards and Bergin, 1997). In such instances, they may accidentally disclose information about their clients, to other members of the congregation, that they learned during a therapy session, but which they mistakenly believe came from a church related activity (Richards and Bergin, 1997). Even telling clients that they need to reschedule their appointments, during a religious gathering, constitutes a serious breach of client confidentiality (Richards and Bergin, 1997). To avoid this ethical pitfall, therapists and clients from the same congregation should have their arrangements approved and monitored by a board of review (Richards and Bergin, 1997).

Theistic therapy is a feasible approach to psychotherapy that can help clients cope with their mental health problems and meet their spiritual needs too, but like other kinds of therapy it has ethical pitfalls. Fundamental ethical standards are at stake when religion and spirituality are incorporated into therapy, so therapists must take multiple precautions to avoid unethical conduct. In general, they should develop a sensitivity to the cultural and religious diversity of their clients, research the nuances and religious belief systems, and always obtain the expressed permission of their clients before incorporating any spiritual or religious practices.


Weld, C., & Eriksen, K. (2007). The Ethics of Prayer in Counseling. COUNSELING AND VALUES, (2). 125.

Fisher, C. B. (2017).Standards on therapy. In Decoding the ethics code: A practical guide for psychologists (4th ed., pp. 113-171).Los Angeles: SAGE.

Richards, P. S., & Bergin, A. E. (1997). Ethical issues and guidelines. In , A spiritual strategy for counseling and psychotherapy (pp. 143-169). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10241-007

Thursday, April 12, 2018

State Imposed Smoking Bans Don't Protect Workers

This is a follow up response to a post made by @eric-the-red Free Market Solutions.

A common argument for forcing restaurants, bars, and casinos to kick smokers out of their establishment is that it protects the workers from secondhand smoke. This might be a valid contention if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that restaurant, bar, and casino workers are significantly more inclined to smoke than the general population. In fact, according to the CDC they are about 1.5x more likely to smoke than workers in other industries.

CDC analyzed National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) data for 2011–2013 to estimate current cigarette smoking prevalence among adults working in the accommodation and food services sector, and found that these workers had higher cigarette smoking prevalence (25.9%) than all other workers (17.3%).

Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant would intuitively know this. This is what the waitstaff do on their breaks. Saying your intention is to protect them from secondhand smoke is kind of worthless if they’re already inhaling first hand smoke at a significantly higher rate than the customers they serve.

Of course this isn’t an endorsement of cigarette smoking or any other kind of smoking for that matter. I am personally against smoking; putting tar in your lungs is never a good idea. Smoking is bad M'kay, but you are the only one with a moral claim to your own body; only you have the prerogative to decide what you put in it. In a state of affairs where unhealthy behavior wasn’t subsidized at the taxpayers expense, the grim consequences would deter such behavior. Despite its posturing and moral grandstanding on the issue of smoking, the government, through its department of agriculture still subsidizes crop insurance premiums for tobacco farms, and until 2004 the government fixed tobacco leaf prices to guarantee high profits to farms.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Obey Your Masters Without Question

This is a meme I was inspired to create by fellow cop hater @mikebluehair42. I can't remember the exact context, but it was in response to an episode of his podcast Strategic Noncompliance where he talks with other cop watchers and first amendment auditors about their experience filming the police on duty. We tend to take freedom of speech and of the press for granted and give scant attention to the ways in which the 'authorities' undermine it. It's fair to say that unless you actively challenge the 'authorities' and their narrative of the world you never see past the illusion that you have this freedom.