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Federal judge mulls 'therapeutic polygraphy' as valid treatment

When an Assistant U.S. Attorney called for "therapeutic polygraph" treatments as a condition of a convicted sex offender's supervised release, one federal judge seemed reluctant. It resulted in a three-hour hearing.

There's good reason for that judge's reluctance. It doesn't appear that the use of polygraph tests for therapeutic purposes is terribly well supported, scientifically. As you may know, so-called "lie detector" tests are only admissible as evidence in federal court at individual judges' discretion and are considered outright inadmissible in some courts. The reason? They aren't very accurate.

If lie detectors aren't accurate enough for court, why are they being used in the federal supervised release program?

This specific case involved a man who served an 18-month sentence for possessing over 6,000 images considered to be child pornography. He has been meeting regularly with a therapist, who told the court he was "forthcoming and engaged in sessions."

The problem is that the prosecutor doesn't believe the man has fully accepted responsibility for his offenses. You see, he claims to have come across the pornographic images after a relatively innocent search on a file-sharing site for Madonna's song "Like a Virgin." When the pornography popped up, he says he found it "morbidly intriguing" but not sexually arousing.

The government wants him to have to pass a series of polygraph tests as a condition of his release. They simply don't believe his purported motivation.

It might be nice to be able to accurately gauge the truth of the matter, but a polygraph won't help with that, explained a Harvard-educated psychiatrist who has served as a technical advisor on legal-themed shows like "Law and Order," "The Killer Speaks" and "Wonderland."

The polygraph works well as a TV trope, but it doesn't measure up in real life. "At most," said the psychiatrist, "the polygraph has been deemed to be 80 percent-to-90 percent accurate, meaning that up to 1 in 5 patients submitting to the test will be found, wrongly, to be lying."

Beyond that, using a lie detector as part of therapy is likely to harm the therapeutic process, he continued. "Using it in that fashion will only break what little, fragile therapeutic alliance there is," he told the court. "Faced with a false finding of deception in a polygraph, imagine the therapist accusing his patient of lying, this is not therapy."

The judge's ruling in this case will only affect this individual defendant. But should the federal justice system be using such questionable therapeutic tests at all?

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