A man taking a lie detector test (Getty)
Artillery Row

Lie to me

The most dangerous offenders could beat a lie detector because they are often convinced what they’ve done is not abuse

Made famous on programmes such as the Jeremy Kyle Show, the polygraph test, or ‘lie detector machine’ is seen as a quirk of the United States criminal justice system (CJS) where three million such tests are carried out on suspected and convicted offenders.  

But the polygraph machine will soon be a feature in the UK, with plans in the first instance to use it to test the ongoing risk posed by hard-core domestic violence perpetrators. 

Bids are open from the 4th January for a ‘long term partner’ to supply equipment to the Ministry of Justice with an aim to ascertain whether offenders about to be released from prison still pose a risk to their female victims. 

The contract would include delivering training to those working in the CJS in how to operate the polygraph to the standard approved by the American Polygraph Association. It works by measuring the physiological changes in the body during the test when the offender is asked particular questions, such as whether he has any desire or motivation to re-offend. But as Davina James-Hanman, world-renowmed expert on domestic abuse and risk management points out, “Even if this method works, I have never heard of them be used to measure the likelihood of future crimes.”

The contract, worth up to £2m, is due to come into effect in March 2021 and last for four years – plus two optional one-year extensions. Tests would be mandatory for high-risk offenders who will be required to take a lie-detector test three months after their release and if they pass, every six months thereafter. But these men rarely get reported let alone sent to prison, so how would such a scheme keep women safe?

Changes in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and perspiration are measured against the perpetrators’ regular rates to ascertain whether he is lying, with the logic that lying is stressful. Not for the likes of black cab serial rapist John Worboys it isn’t. If he can fool an entire Parole Board comprising of experts I am sure he and others like him can dupe a machine.

The polygraph is not admissible as evidence in court. This move by the DOJ smells of desperation

And as for domestic violence perpetrators, either there are hundreds of thousands of really stupid, clueless women that believe it when these men swear on their lives and the lives of their children that they will never lift a hand to her again, or these men are some of the most manipulative and skilled liars and deceivers on the planet. After campaigning for 40 years against male violence, I will opt for the latter. 

For James-Hanman, the best solution to keep women safe from dangerous and repeat domestic violence offenders is something known as ‘third generation electronic monitoring’, used in Spain, Portugal and France, which provide survivors with a three mile safety zone around them which in turn, negates the need for them and their children to be rehoused. It could save the state a fortune.

I am far from the only sceptic when it comes to lie detectors. In 2014, a statement from the Association of Chief Police Officers (now the National Police Chief’s Council) strongly discouraged its use.  Crucially, the polygraph is not admissible as evidence in court. This move by the DOJ smells of desperation. 

As I wrote in these pages about the failure of domestic violence perpetrator programmes, almost half of the women were still in fear of  the abuser after he had completed the course. How will the women feel being told by a probation officer or parole board that the abuser has passed the polygraph test when she knows only too well how skilled he is at deflecting blame and feeling no remorse? “If he can kid a parole board he can definitely kid a machine,” Annie* told me when I asked if she would trust the lie detector test as an effective risk assessment. “He has spent the past 18 years pulling the wool over the eyes of police, magistrates and prison officers.”

In another episode of ‘You couldn’t make it up’, of the perpetrator fails the test he will not be sent back to prison, unless he refuses to take the test or attempt to ‘trick’ it.

The most dangerous domestic abuse and sex offenders, such as sociopaths and narcissists are usually convinced that what they have done is NOT abuse will not give any physical signs of lying that could be picked up by a machine. These arch gaslighters are classic examples of the men that slip through the net, as they are so skilled at duping everyone around them. Perhaps if they stole a bicycle they might get caught out by a polygraph test, but not when they are attempting to convince a machine that they will never beat or rape a woman again.

Assessing risk is absolutely crucial when it comes to domestic abuse. Across the UK, every three days a woman is killed by a former or current male partner, and many men subject their victims to a lifetime of harassment if she manages to escape.

But is lie detection technology really the solution to the CJS failure to risk assess? No. It would make more sense for police and prosecutors to up their game and arrest and prosecute these offenders early on, before the violence becomes potentially lethal. 

Repeatedly criticised as not fit for purpose, polygraph tests should remain the fodder of low-rent TV programmes. A criminal justice system that is truly devoted to accurately measuring risk should first and foremost ask the women themselves, not a machine. 

*Not her real name

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