Polygraph testing and treatment of sexual offenders

Why polygraph testing of sexual offenders is not an effective treatment strategy

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.

Decades of research regarding the use of polygraph have failed to show improvement in its reliability. Yet very little research has been dedicated to exploring whether or how polygraph improves treatment outcomes or reduces recidivism rates of sexual offenders.  Despite the known problems of reliability, and unsupported claims of efficacy in treatment and deterrence, the use of polygraph in PCSOT continues to be upheld by courts around the country as a legitimate tool in depriving individuals of their Constitutional rights and subjecting them to additional punishment.

The lack of scientific support for the use of polygraph in PCSOT should be of serious concern where individuals are at risk of being deprived of their freedom. Polygraph testing may be most effective in coercing individuals to provide socially desirable answers in an effort to be seen as scrupulously truthful. In addition, therapists who work with these offenders may be compelled to provide information to the polygraph examiner that is then used to formulate test questions. In virtually any other type of psychological treatment, this kind of coercion and sharing of information disclosed in therapy would raise significant ethical concerns. Yet in the “treatment” of sexual offenders, these questionable practices can, and do, result in further legal actions or other sanctions against the convicted offender[8], with little discussion about ethics.

The Colorado legislature rightly took steps to put an end to what appears to be a conflict of interest on the part of certain members of the SOMB. Perhaps without the influence of people who have economic interests in administering polygraph tests, the SOMB might consider whether polygraph testing is in fact an effective use of the millions of dollars it spends on this testing.[9] In terms of improving treatment outcomes and reducing recidivism, polygraph testing simply has not been demonstrated to be effective. Colorado and other states might be better advised to invest taxpayer dollars in research regarding effective treatment and management strategies, rather than continuing to fund use of a tool that does not support those goals.


[1] McGrath, R. J., Cumming, G. F., Burchard, B. L., Zeoli, S., & Ellerby, L. (2010). Current practices and emerging trends in sexual abuser management: the Safer Society 2009 North American Survey. Brandon, VT: Safer Society Press. Retrieved from http://www.deslibris.ca/ID/223961

[2] National Research Council. (2003). The Polygraph and Lie Detection. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/10420.

[3] Grubin, D., Madsen, L., Parsons, S., Sosnowski, D., & Warberg, B. (2004). A prospective study of the impact of polygraphy on high-risk behaviors in adult sex offenders. Sexual Abuse, 16(3), 209–222.

[4] Ben-Shakhar, G. (2008). The case against the use of polygraph examinations to monitor post-conviction sex offenders. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 13(2), 191–207. https://doi.org/10.1348/135532508X298577.

[5] Ahlmeyer, S., Heil, P., McKee, B., & English, K. (2000). The impact of polygraphy on admissions of victims and offenses in adult sexual offenders. Sexual Abuse, 12(2), 123–138.

[6] Meijer, E. H., Verschuere, B., Merckelbach, H. L. G. J., & Crombez, G. (2008). Sex offender management using the polygraph: A critical review. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 31(5), 423–429. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijlp.2008.08.007.

[7] McGrath, R. J., Cumming, G. F., Hoke, S. E., & Bonn-Miller, M. O. (2007). Outcomes in a Community Sex Offender Treatment Program: A Comparison Between Polygraphed and Matched Non-polygraphed Offenders. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 19(4), 381–393. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11194-007-9058-z.

[8] Jensen, T. M., Shafer, K., Roby, C. Y., & Roby, J. L. (2015). Sexual history disclosure polygraph outcomes: Do juvenile and adult sex offenders differ? Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 30(6), 928–944.

[9] Osher, C. (May 14, 2017). Colorado’s pricey polygraph testing of sex offenders under fire as critics target accuracy, expense. The Denver Post. Retrieved from https://www.denverpost.com/2017/05/14/colorado-does-not-require-polygraph-testing-of-most-parolees-but-sex-offenders-get-different-treatment/.

19 thoughts on “Polygraph testing and treatment of sexual offenders

  1. Listed below are court rulings against the constitutionality of the sexual history polygraph based on 5th Amendment violations (right to be free from compelled self-incrimination). Sexual history questionnaires upon which the sexual history polygraphs are based uniformly require the offender to list every offense they committed, but were never reported or prosecuted for. This question is especially dangerous to child molesters since every state has mandatory reporting laws. Compounding this danger is that in most states there is no statute of limitations that tolls a countdown clock when child molestation is involved. Offenders can be and have been prosecuted decades after the abuse took place. When the offender is a child molester this sexual history polygraph poses a greatly enhanced, immediate and dire threat of self-incrimination. Part of the standard treatment agreement offenders signs is a provision that authorizes the treatment provider to report any additional cases of child sexual abuse disclosed during the course of treatment to the authorities.
    The precedent setting case on this issue of polygraphs and compelled self-incrimination resulting from sex offender treatment is The United States v. Lawrence Antelope (9th Circuit Court of Appeals).
    Other cases that followed:
    United States v. Von Behren:
    United States v. Bahr (No. 12-30218)
    Dansby v. Texas
    Similarly, offenders cannot be kicked out of mandated treatment simply because they refuse to incriminate themselves.
    People of Colorado v. Guatney


      1. Not a problem, Jennifer.

        Until sex offenders across the nation start raising these slam-dunk constitutional issues, the use of the sexual history polygraph will never be utterly stamped out. This is an issue that really begs a United States Supreme Court ruling for the kill to be nation-wide. People can win all day long at the local or regional (Circuit Court of Appeals- example 9th Circuit) and garner local victories and add convincing arguments to the list of case law, but to really put it down for good nation-wide we need an authoritative ruling from the highest court in the land.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Even if the sexual history questionnaire does not ask for specific victims’ names, asking the offender to indicate whether the child was a stranger, an acquaintance, or a family member, that can also be protected by the 5th Amendment when a family member is a victim because that greatly reduces the scope of where law enforcement would have to focus their investigation.


  3. Jennifer, where do I go to see what has been going on since I posted those court rulings? You sent me an e-mail that states, “You might want to go see what they’re up to! Perhaps you will like their blog as much as they liked your comment! “. I don’t see anything here. Can you provide a direct link to what you’re talking about?


      1. I believe that the very existence of Polygraph tests and examiners use on Sex Offenders is totally useless because it does not have any legitimate scientific value. Pseudo junk science for manipulation and exploitation of a class of people deemed scum in society.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The fake e-mail is identical to what just came to me where you said, “Sounds like someone spoofing WordPress sites. Thank you for letting me know about it.”


  5. I will have to take this once i’m on parole. Not looking forward to it. Someone I know failed it and now has tight restrictions. He failed it because he over thought the questions. I live in PA. I was told it’s just a tool to check your honesty. we’ll see.


    1. Unfortunately, these compliance polygraphs are green-lighted by the courts. They are junk science. If you TRULY don’t believe the work, they won’t. Those things only pick up on a fear response/anxiety response. They’re no more scientific than phrenology.


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