Why would anyone confess to something they didn’t do?

—David A. Harris

For years, I, like most people, did not believe that a person would ever confess to a serious crime he or she didn’t commit. It just seemed implausible: admitting to a crime meant you were subjecting yourself to punishment—maybe decades in prison or even death. There’s no way you’d do that unless it were true (or you were forced into it).

Of course, with DNA on the scene for more than 20 years, we know better: people do confess to crimes they did not commit, usually because of the huge pressures brought to bear on them in the interrogation room. According to the Innocence Project, about a quarter of the post-conviction DNA-based exonerations on record featured a false confession, or a false statement of guilt of some kind.

Here’s a story that makes a good example of how and why this can happen. In this case, a man named Richard Lapointe falsely confessed to a rape and murder, serving 23 years in prison as a result. Now, a court has ruled that he must receive a new trial. The flaws of Lapointe’s interrogation puts many of the major causes of false confessions on display. For example:

  • The interrogation was not recorded. Recording of interrogations can reduce false confessions and supply an indisputable record of what was said in the interrogation room.
  • The police lied to Lapointe about falsified scientific evidence. Police are allowed to lie in interrogations, but lies about scientific and forensic testing make prison seem inescapable, forcing the suspect to tell the police what they want to hear in order to stop the pressure.
  • The interrogation continued for about nine hours, far longer than average. This increases the chances of a false confession.
  • Lapointe was brain damaged, and the police knew it. Mental disabilities make false confessions more likely.

Lapointe’s case is an object lesson in what can go wrong—and what we should be doing to make sure this doesn’t happen. We should record all interrogations, front to back; prohibit lying to suspects about test results; and limit the interrogation time to two hours, with extensions—perhaps to four hours—only with a supervisor’s permission. These simple steps can keep us from hearing more stories like Lapointe’s in the future.

David A. Harris is Distinguished Faculty Scholar and Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Good Cops: The Case for Preventive Policing and Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work and Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (NYU Press, 2012).

This article first appeared on the author’s blog. Read more here.

Chinese growth and happiness

—Peter N. Stearns

Recent surveys on Chinese life satisfaction provide yet another indication of the fraught relationship between modern development and overall happiness. The New York Times report by Richard Easterlin—always one of our most interesting social scientists—shows pretty clearly that stupendous growth in the overall economy and in consumption standards over the past two decades has not only not generated corresponding increases in reported satisfaction, but has actually accompanied a decline. Results plummeted as growth accelerated in the 1990s, then picked up a bit in the past few years but without recovering 1990 levels.

Happiness is a tricky thing to measure, of course, and it’s interesting that the Easterlin terminology alternates between happiness and life satisfaction, which are not necessarily exactly the same things. Comparative studies suggest that happiness is a tricky concept in East Asian cultures (in contrast to the West and Latin America), but this would not per se distort findings over time within the same culture.

It’s certainly nice to see a discussion of Chinese issues free from our common impulse to bash or gloat. This is a nervous time for mutual U.S. and Chinese perceptions, and we often distort problems in an effort to feel better—happier?—about China’s impressive surge. (Here’s a scary thought: How much has American happiness come to depend on claims we’re better than others, regardless of data?)

But the Easterlin findings do suggest a couple of further thoughts about happiness and modernity:

First, the findings are absolutely unsurprising in any historical perspective. China is still in relatively early phases of industrial maturation. I don’t think there is any record of any society in a similar phase in which happiness does not decline. Of course we lack the polling data for the past that we now enjoy, so my assertion can’t be fully proved. But the major source of outright decline in China rests among the bottom third of the population, faced with massive change including introduction to factory work conditions and encounters with urban life even as attachments to the countryside remain strong. This sounds eerily familiar to historians who have worked on Britain’s—or Germany’s, or Japan’s—industrial surge—or even the United States’s in its period of massive industrial immigration. This doesn’t detract from the Easterlin findings, or prevent us from hoping that the Chinese will more quickly figure out how to do things better. But it does remind us—regardless of our views on the benefits and drawbacks of more fully achieved modern economies—that modernization has always come with a price.

Which means that, in evaluating modernity more generally, the more interesting Easterlin finding may be the only moderate improvement in satisfaction among the upper third of the Chinese population. These folks are not facing the worst strains of the process. They are by definition more prosperous, and often more accustomed to urban conditions. Yet even they are not jumping with joy.

Easterlin concludes that the Chinese data point to the important of beefing up the safety net, to provide fuller protections for the poorer classes: more job security, better health care, more help for children and the elderly. And he uses his findings to warn Americans about tolerating too much further deterioration in our own nets. I don’t disagree, and would only add a plea for attention to environmental safety nets as well.

But there is probably more than safety nets involved, which is where the upper third comes in—and where we can also draw some lessons for ourselves. We know that, reflected in the Chinese case, a first turn to consumerism increases happiness but that the surge is often moderate and that it’s always finite: further improvements don’t help. China may be facing not only safety net issues but also broader concerns about finding value and meaning in modern life. And here, though there may be more specifically Chinese factors involved, they clearly join the modern throng.

For although modernized societies tend to be happier than nonmodern, the gap is variable and not, on the whole, as great as might be expected given standard of living gains. Here is where, along with safety net repair, Chinese and American observers unquestionably find common ground. We all need to be thinking about improving our management of modern success at both social and personal levels. We need to seize opportunities to share insights and learn from mutual experience. More and more of us, obviously, are in the modern boat together, and we can probably figure out how to steer it better.

Peter N. Stearns is Provost and University Professor at George Mason University. He is the editor-in-chief of The Journal of Social History, and author of Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society (NYU Press, 2012).

Five ways to avoid conviction for a crime you didn’t do

David A. Harris’s (newly released!) book, Failed Evidence, looks at the flaws of the current justice system and explains why a still-reticent law enforcement needs to fully embrace the scientific present to make the justice process more accurate.

Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh—and a nationally known expert on police profiling—sat down with us recently to talk about his work, and, along the way, debunked the notion that only criminal activity will get you involved in the prosecution system. “Every story that’s in Failed Evidence tells me, ‘Guess again,’” he says. “It can happen to anyone.” Here, he offers five tips for protecting yourself against wrongful conviction. Number one? Always invoke your right to an attorney…

The Internet and modern times: Are they driving us crazy?

—Peter N. Stearns

The evidence is piling in: People are not only dangerously addicted to the Internet, but are also driven literally insane by its pace and pressure. This includes imagining cell phone vibrations out of the blue—a phenomenon known as Phantom Vibration Syndrome—and feeling lonely and dissatisfied despite having hundreds of “friends” on Facebook.

Half full or half crazy?

The growing concern about the downsides of the Internet and its communications spawn raises important issues. In their most recent revision of their staple Diagnostic manual, American psychologists are recognizing Internet addiction as a new illness. More widely, a variety of observers speculate not only about the Internet’s outright damage to individual psyches, but about the wider inadequacies of digital offsprings such as Facebook.

The discussion is interesting in its own right, but it also evokes recurrent frustrations with modernity in general. The basic conversation is not as novel as many of its proponents imply. After all, the notion that people are sacrificing wellbeing to the inexorable demands of technological change is hardly a new one. Putting the current Internet debate into wider context may actually contribute to sorting out the problems involved.

Most obviously, it has long been clear—if not always adequately discussed—that modern developments harm a minority. Rates of depression unquestionably go up with the onset of modernity, and the Internet is simply another contribution to a larger story. The result is a clear challenge to objective evaluation: how much should the new troubles of a minority detract from the larger satisfactions modernity brings? Should those of us who both enjoy and depend on the Internet change our ways because some people are endangered? (And, of course, how big is the threatened minority in any event?) Finally—this has also been part of the modern story—can’t we generate some compensatory therapy?

But the minority downside is only part of the picture. Critics who attack the hollowness of the Internet’s social results also sound a familiar alarm. Other aspects of modernity must be discussed in terms of false promises. Consumerism and modern leisure are two other examples of phenomena that win ardent support but which, nevertheless, do not bring the systematic benefits their advocates claim. Do the critics have enough evidence to counter the enthusiasms of the majority—can so many enthusiasts be wrong about their own commitments? Are we sure that satisfactions were really greater in the good old days?  Do we risk measuring against a misleading nostalgia? The analytical challenges here are both significant and interesting, and again the Internet can fit into a larger, though complex, effort at evaluation.

My own take on modernity—and I would apply the same thinking to the Internet, which I enjoy a lot—is that, overall, the gains outweigh the downsides, though the damage should not be swept under the rug. Periodic criticisms of modernity, which is now emerging around the Internet debate as well, too often overdo the dark sides. So far, as I can see, the claims that the Internet is driving us all crazy just does not stand up.

It is true that modernity has not produced as many gains as its more enthusiastic proponents have claimed, and that too often modern societies have let changes sweep over them without sensitive assessment or control. We can, in other words, do better, even as we recognize that we neither can nor should turn back the clock entirely. Beneath the various crises that claim the headlines, the challenge of taking a more thoughtful approach to modern change needs more attention than we have so far been able to provide. Critical discussion is in this sense a vital first step.

But, at the very least, Internet fans and critics alike should know that this is the latest in a series of modern improvements that should be handled with care. What’s next in the queue?

Peter N. Stearns is Provost and University Professor at George Mason University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Journal of Social History, and author of Satisfaction Not Guaranteed, published by NYU Press in April 2012.

Author Tim Kelly Spurring Mental Health Care Reforms

The news abounds with stories about flaws and idiosyncrasies of our mental health care system, mostly due to the spotlight that shrinking budgets puts on them. From mentally-ill prisoners starving to death to the touching tale of the therapist who tried to kill herself, it’s clear that budget cuts can seriously affect the mentally ill and those who care for them.

But, with new challenges come new opportunities. Healing the Broken Mind: Transforming America’s Failed Mental Health System by Timothy A. Kelly (2009) not only makes the case for use of clinical outcome measures to create more efficient care, but shows how the resultant data will improve quality of care and quality of life for those seeking help. Kelly argues that the time has come for a sweeping transformation of mental health care so that recovery becomes the norm. The book provides a realistic road map for getting there – addressing both policy and clinical concerns in a thoughtful and comprehensive manner.

Kelly himself thinks that making some hard choices about mental health care may be a good thing. “As the nation struggles to overcome deficits and pull out of a stagnant economy, expensive medical services are potentially on the chopping block – including mental health care,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Third party payers – federal, state and private insurers – are asking which services are most effective and which, if any, are not. The only way to answer such questions is to track the actual outcomes of clinical care. This means the time has come for mental health service providers to begin collecting outcome data so as to support the value of their particular treatment approach. Those who can demonstrate effectiveness will have a much easier time of maintaining funding than those who cannot.”

His advice is already leading to action. A mental health care group in Montana is using Kelly’s model to make better decision about treating its patients:

After receiving a grant from the Mountain Plains Equity Group, NAMI Montana has spent the last year trying to bring a comprehensive, real-time outcomes measurement program to analyze Montana’s state-funded mental illness treatment system. The program was inspired by system transformation guidelines set out in Healing the Broken Mind: Transforming America’s Failed Mental Health System by Dr. Timothy Kelly. We are happy to announce that mental health centers around the state are slowly beginning to buy into the program.

“Perhaps the current fiscal crisis can spur sweeping reforms that are long overdue in mental health services,” says Kelly. “If so, then the agony of budget cuts may at least lead to something positive in the long run – better care.”

Who Fertilzes the Fertilizers? More on Reproductive Technology Law

Following up on our post from a few days ago, Naomi Cahn (author of Test Tube Families) writes in the Baltimore Sun about the case of a 60-year-old woman who gave birth with the help of a fertility clinic.

So we are reminded yet again that doctors are getting better and better at delivering what, in years past, would have been reasonably described as miracles. And important questions are being asked as a result, such as: Is it responsible for a woman to bear children regardless of her age or the number of babies involved? Is it ethical for fertility clinics to facilitate a paying customer’s pregnancy simply because they know how?

To that mix, here’s one that’s equally controversial: Is it time for federal and state governments to consider legal rules and boundaries for the fertility industry? A new research-based report by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, “Old Lessons for a New World,” suggests that the answer may finally be “yes.”

The report points out that adoption and assisted reproductive technology have much in common as “nontraditional” means of forming families, and that adoption’s far-longer history of research, experience and evidence-informed policies therefore could help to improve practices in the world of assisted reproduction.

Who Needs More than Eight Babies? A Legal Perspective

An op-ed by Naomi Cahn, author of Test Tube Families: Why the Fertility Market Needs Legal Representation (NYU Press 2009), and Jennifer Collins. Cross-posted (with permission from the author) from PrawfsBlawg.

If children are cheaper by the dozen, then how much for 14? Nadya Suleman is the mother of the new California octuplets (and 6 other children, all under the age of eight). She loves children, and she is very happy about the situation. She is fielding offers to appear on talk shows to tell her story, and carefully evaluating her next steps, according to her spokesperson.

The public response, however, has been far less enthusiastic, to put it mildly. Nadya Suleman has allegedly received death threats, and commentators have begun to call for increased regulation of fertility treatment. These calls for increased regulation fall into two main categories. First, some commentators have called for increased regulation of the in vitro fertilization procedure, which is the fertility treatment that led to Ms Suleman’s pregnancy, and in particular the number of embryos that can be transferred during the procedure. Others, however, have called for restricting access to the procedure itself. For example, Margaret Somerville, writing in the Ottawa Citizen newpaper, suggests that we need to consider whether prospective users of fertility treatment would be “suitable” parents, taking factors like family size and financial resources into account.

Let’s start with questions about increased regulation of the IVF process. How did Ms. Suleman’s particular procedure result in 8 babies?
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Follow That Sperm

Naomi Cahn, author of Families by Law (NYU Press 2004) and the forthcoming Test Tube Families (NYU Press 2008), along with Wendy Kramer, founder of the Donor Sibling Registry, recently published this op-ed in the Houston Press about the issues surrounding anonymous gamete donation.

Mandatory registry: Earlier this week, a Canadian court issued an order that prevented anyone from destroying any records they have about sperm, egg or embryo donation ["Donor Babies," by Craig Malisow, November 6]. The court was responding to a class-action lawsuit filed by Olivia Pratten, whose parents used donor sperm 27 years ago. Pratten has been searching for almost a decade for information about the man who donated the sperm that makes up one-half of her genetic material. But she has no way of getting access to any records about him, and she doesn’t even know if any records still exist. Continue reading