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Study raises questions about court psychology tests

When judges and juries in Maryland and around the country are tasked with making sentencing decisions or determining an individual's suitability for bail, they often consider the results of IQ and psychological tests. These tests are generally viewed as being accurate and backed by science, but that is not what a team of researchers found when they studied almost 900 cases that went to court between 2016 and 2018. The study, which was published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal on Feb. 15, concludes that only about one in three of the IQ and psychological tests that are routinely used in courts has received the backing of the scientific community.

The researchers also questioned the validity of the tests being used in courts that have been reviewed by scientists and academics. More than half of these reviewed IQ and psychology tests are looked upon unfavorably, and almost a quarter of them are considered unreliable. The study suggests that attorneys may be unfamiliar with these scientific shortcomings as the introduction of psychological evidence went unchallenged in more than 97% of the cases.

The researchers were especially critical of the use of Rorschach test results in criminal and civil trials. The test, which dates back to 1921, uses the way people interpret inkblots to identify their character traits, and it is considered ambiguous, subjective and possibly dangerous by many scientists. The study reveals that only Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory results are used in court more often than Rorschach test conclusions.

Juries tend to be swayed by scientific evidence, which is why experienced criminal defense attorneys may scrutinize the techniques used carefully and call on experts when questions arise. Psychological assessments are an important part of many criminal proceedings, but even small changes in the way these tests are conducted can profoundly influence the outcome. To ensure that the results are fair and reliable, attorneys might call for neutral observers to be present during testing and challenge the use of methods that lack scientific support.

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