Polygraph testing of sexual offenders

[jenniferkamorowski.net 5/19/18]

On May 9, the Colorado legislature passed House Bill 1427, which prohibits individuals with a vested economic interest in administration of polygraph tests from serving on the sex offender management board (SOMB). Beyond the issue of conflict of interest, there are other reasons to keep polygraph out of sex offender treatment decisions. The primary reasons are issues with reliability and the coercive nature of compelling disclosures about thoughts and activities (legal or illegal).

Polygraph testing in post-conviction sex offender treatment (PCSOT) is used in approximately 80% of community-based sex offender treatment programs.[1] This high rate of use continues despite the fact that in 2003 the National Research Council found little support for the accuracy of polygraph, particularly when used for screening purposes, as it is in PCSOT.[2] The lack of scientific support for polygraph testing is why the results are generally not admissible in court. Despite this lack of scientific support, some proponents of polygraph are unconcerned with the accuracy, reliability, or validity of the testing as long as it gets people to confess to deviant thoughts and “risky” behaviors.[3]

There is no objective way to measure the accuracy of the polygraph[4], but proponents claim the value is in increased disclosure of information and deterrence of offending.[5] However, claims about the value of polygraph as a deterrent to offending are not supported by research.[6] Increased disclosure of information is also not supported as having either treatment or deterrence value. In fact, a 2007 study found that there was no difference in recidivism rates between sexual offenders who were subjected to polygraph and those who were not.[7] Contrary to the purported value of increased disclosures, there is no evidence increased disclosures means decreased offending.

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