DENVER — Colorado has spent more than $5 million to administer polygraph tests on convicted sex offenders over the last seven years, despite concerns that the results are so unreliable that they can’t be used at trial.
Polygraphs, often called lie-detector tests, are used to determine which prisoners convicted of sex offenses are suited for release by probing their sexual history, attitudes about their crimes and whether they are committing new offenses. They also guide how offenders on parole or probation are supervised.
But a bipartisan group of legislators has joined offenders in questioning the validity of the tests, saying too much weight is placed on what they call junk science, The Denver Post reported https://goo.gl/SDoHPg . They also say a profitable cottage industry has grown up around polygraphing sex offenders in the state.
“To me, there is no question that it borders on a scam,” said Senate President pro-tem Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling. “We incentivize the people who give the polygraph tests to have inconclusive results so an offender has to go back and pay for another one on a more regular basis.”
Colorado’s polygraphing is “grossly excessive,” psychologist Deirdre D’Orazio testified in federal court in Denver in 2015. D’Orazio, who is on a high-risk sex-offender task force in California, led a team of consultants that issued a report for the Colorado Department of Corrections in 2013 criticizing how it manages sex offenders and how it uses polygraphs.
She returned to the state to testify for Howard Alt, then 51, who a decade earlier was convicted for having sex with a 15-year-old girl and having nude images of teenage girls on a computer.
After his release from prison, Alt took 28 polygraphs, often with competing results. The treatment provider that tested him had a “fiduciary incentive conflict” to fail him, D’Orazio said. The firm was “making money on outcomes that are not in the offender client’s favor” by requiring him to pay for more tests and treatment, she said.
Polygraphs measure certain physiological responses that happen when a person is asked a series of questions, and some say those responses often are associated with deception.
“The polygraph really gives useful information,” said Lenny Woodson, administrator for the Colorado Department of Corrections’ Sex Offender Treatment and Monitoring Program. “And we’ve made it clear in our standards that it isn’t to be used in isolation. We’re using as many avenues as possible to make treatment decisions.”
He notes that mental health professionals and therapists can override failed polygraphs and recommend that the sex offender be released.
The state of Colorado, relying on court fees paid by those convicted of sex crimes, picks up the tab of the polygraphs for those who are in prison and also often for the indigent who are out on parole or probation. But when the state fund runs out of money, parolees and probationers who don’t have the money to pay for them risk running afoul of their supervision requirements.
State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver, said she became concerned after hearing about a constituent taking polygraphs related to consensual sexting as a juvenile. Joining her in considering legislation to restrict their use are Sonnenberg and Rep. Yeulin Willett, a Republican from Grand Junction.
“Think of a juvenile having to take a polygraph about their sex history. … Juvenile polygraph responses tend to be inconclusive because, well, they’re kids, and they get scared and confused,” Herod said.
Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com