Nebraska to use polygraphs to monitor sex offenders

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April 6, 2011 - 7:00pm

The State of Nebraska is preparing a new tool, polygraph exams, to keep track of the behavior of sex offenders out on parole. By next year some of those on the registry will be given the option to take regular exams following their release from prison to monitor their behavior and for use in counseling and treatment.

Other states have successfully used polygraphs for years, but there are still cautions about how it's administered. In one case in New Mexico a sex offender is challenging the legality of the process. Previously the only offenders in Nebraska who were given post-conviction polygraphs had been found guilty in the Federal Courts.


An actual polygraph chart (with suspect's name deleted) is marked to show what each of the lines is measuring during the examination.

The Lincoln, Nebraska Police Department began using polygraphs for investigations in the 1960's. (Photo Courtesy Lincoln Police Department)

All current polygraphs are done with computers, but the basic measurements of respiration, blood pressure, pulse and skin response are much the same as the original process. (Photo Courtesy Discovery Investigations)

Recently the use of polygraph on sex offenders in Colorado was studied on behalf of the National Institute of Justice. The researchers concluded monitoring and evaluation of the offenders was "great enhanced" by using the technology.

Psychologist Mary Paine, based in Lincoln, Nebraska, has consulted polygraph results in her treatment of sex offenders. During a recent interview in her office with NET News Senior Producer Bill Kelly, Paine said she often finds it to be an effective tool. Kelly started by asking Mary Paine how the Federal system works.

MARY PAINE: It's used prior to sentencing to determine that (the convicted sex offender) essentially telling the truth about their offense histories. Shortly after they start into treatment, there's usually a sexual history polygraph that is pretty much just exactly what it sounds like. It does a very detailed history and in the process of doing that would include (being asked about) any victims as well.

BILL KELLY: Are you involved in that process? Do you help the polygraph examiner structure the interview and figure out what to ask that would be of value to you as a therapist?

PAINE: We get (the convicted offender) comfortable in treatment when they're starting to be a little invested and open up. That's part of the treatment process. That's usually the time at which we gather the sexual history questionnaire. That's a standard part of our sex offender treatment program. You do an autobiography and you do a sexual history. So it's laying the groundwork for it, although the polygrapher has a form of his own that he gathers the history on.

KELLY: How valuable is that in starting treatment?

PAINE: Sometimes it tells what we already know and individual isn't holding anything else back, which is good to know because we know that we have an accurate assessment of what their treatment needs are and what their level of risk is. In other cases, it's pretty readily apparent that they've withheld information and then we know that we don't know everything that we need to know to determine their level of risk and what their treatment needs are. And so that becomes the focus point of treatment at that point.

KELLY: What does the offender think about having to go through this process?

PAINE: I don't know of anybody who has ever greeted it enthusiastically. Most of them are very apprehensive. They have a lot of questions. I would say the most common question is what if it shows that I'm being deceptive just because I'm nervous?'

KELLY: When it does show that somebody has been withholding information early on in treatment, does that help I guess break the ice with the client?

PAINE: Hopefully, we've broken the ice before then. Ideally, they would have felt comfortable enough in treatment to begin to open up and be invested in the process. This is an area where there's a lot of shame. And it's not just the shame of talking about their offending histories and their sexual issues, but also there's a lot riding on the line for some of them. If you have other victims that you've not disclosed, it's understandable you'd be afraid.

KELLY: The technology aside, does going through this process encourage truthfulness with some offenders that they may say stuff that they wish they didn't have to, but they're feeling they're going to get caught anyway?

PAINE: I think it's definitely cause for pause. I do think that it probably causes some individuals to divulge information. In fact, I'm positive that with some individuals I know that they've supplied information they otherwise would not have.

KELLY: That's a good thing?

PAINE: Yes. I definitely would agree.

KELLY: Sexual history is used to monitor (an offenders progress) periodically, how does that process work? Does it happen while treatment is still underway?

PAINE: Actually there are two types and I'm not going to profess to be an expert on polygraphs. One is the sexual history, which is just getting it all out, making sure that we know what we need to know. And then there are monitoring exams. Have you been compliant with the conditions of your probation? Are you being compliant with treatment? Are you being honest with your therapist?

KELLY: Are those (reports) of value in a clinical setting?

PAINE: They have been, in the same way that I indicated initially with the original polygraph. It lets you know whether or not somebody has been disclosing, if they are candid with you, or whether they're withholding information. You can then target that in treatment, discuss what their concerns are about being more open. It could be used to guide their treatment. For example, if somebody is still struggling with sexually deviant urges and fantasies and they haven't been disclosing that, then that's on the table. It's out now.

KELLY: And that helps you.

PAINE: Because until somebody's talking about it, it's pretty difficult to address it. A significant part of doing sex offense specific therapy is getting the individual (A) invested in the therapy and (B) comfortable enough to talk about the things that need to be effectively treated. If you are going into your medical doctor and you were trying to get treated for some problem, but you couldn't tell your doctor your symptoms and you were effectively blinding him, it would be a little bit difficult to treat you. Same here. The more open the individual is, the more effectively and appropriately they're going to be treated. So it's pretty critical.

KELLY: So if a polygraph exam helps identify where somebody's being deceptive or is encouraging people to be truthful, does it actually make the therapy process more efficient?

PAINE: I believe so. I mean that's difficult to tell because I don't get to use it with everybody. It's not like I've been able to empirically test that, but I can tell you there are definitely times that I have been very appreciative to have the opportunity to have somebody undergo one. And it's not with everybody who we treat.

KELLY: Under what circumstances or what type of client or what circumstances makes it more useful than in another case?

PAINE: Sometimes we don't know who it's useful for. Sometimes I'm working with somebody who appears to be the epitome of candor and highly invested in treatment and I don't have any concerns that they're withholding information, not significant concerns at any rate, and they take a polygraph and they fail it. So for me to say that sometimes there are certain clients that it's helpful with, sometimes I'm surprised at who it's helpful with. But in general, I would say for the individuals who are either less invested in treatment to begin with, they're only doing it because there's some sort of external force requiring them to. Or those who are having high levels of denial and minimization. Who just aren't very clinically engaged. it's particularly helpful.

KELLY: Why with the state cases, if it's not required, why isn't it a routine part of your treatment tool package?

PAINE: That would be cost-prohibitive. A lot of the individuals who I work with, it's simply not feasible for them. They're struggling to pay for their therapy. They're struggling to meet their basic needs. A polygraph ranges anywhere from 350 to 450 dollars, so it's not something that we require people to do. But we have requested them. We have asked them to do them at times.

KELLY: Are the same sorts of questions that are asked for the containment purposes for the monitoring for the are they backsliding? Are those the same types of questions that are of value to you as a therapist? Or are there almost two different types of information sometimes that are of value?

PAINE: I think they're both helpful. You know, when I think of the sexual history one that's done early on, that's helpful for assessment purposes because I know the range of the person's problems. And I can make a better assessment of their risk and how we need to manage it and what their treatment needs are going to be. As they're going along, you know, they're only in our office once or twice a week, and they're out in the world where the risk is the rest of the time. So it's nice to have a way to verify that they're complying with the conditions of their risk management plan, their complying with treatment, because they're interrelated.

KELLY: Does having this tool improve public safety? Does using this as a monitoring tool actually help making sure those who are being monitored are sticking to what they're saying they're doing?

PAINE: I think it's helpful. I do think that there have been times when it's increased safety in that we've discovered that somebody is having contact with children and they weren't reporting it. Sometimes even regular contact with children. That's very relevant information, and it's information we otherwise would have no way of knowing.

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