Psychology - Gathering information from convicted offenders

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Gathering information from convicted offenders

Convicted offenders are sometimes used in criminal research. These include serious offenders - murderers and rapists. We can ask direct questions about their crimes and the social conditions that may have led them to become criminals. We can also ask them about their families, and any other family members who have also been convicted of crimes. This is a valid way of investigating crime, but it does have its problems.

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Practical problems

  • Convicted offenders may use the research as a way of gaining early release from prison by telling psychologists that they are sorry for their crimes or by underplaying the crimes they have committed. This might lead to results that reflect dishonesty rather than truth.
  • Convicted offenders might try to glorify their crimes to make them feel more important than they are. This can lead to useless study findings.
  • Offenders might feel guilty about their crimes and feel uncomfortable talking about what they have done.
  • Criminals may believe that the information they give could be used to convict another criminal. They may fear that the other criminal might get back at them. This could lead to distress.
  • They might withhold certain information to protect themselves, their families or their criminal group.
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Ethical problems

Criminals are often used in psychological research and asked directly for insight into their own behaviour. This process can be therapeutic for some criminals as they can talk about their crimes and 'get it off their chest'. But others may feel intimidated and threatened by being asked personal questions. There are ethical problems to consider when gathering information from convicted offenders:

  • Criminals who are used in psychological research should not be treated any differently from non-criminal participants, just because they are criminals and are in prison.
  • Criminals, ex-criminals and prisoners have the same human rights as any other member of society.
  • Like all participants of psychological research convicted offenders should have the right to give consent, be able to withdraw from the study, have their privacy respected and debriefed. No humans should be put at risk of harm or distress.
  • Criminals might feel guilt about their crimes and feel uncomfortable talking about them.
  • Criminals may believe that the information they give could be used to convict another criminal. They may fear that the other criminal might look for revenge. This could lead to distress. 
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