Jordan Hughes, MJLST Staffer
When most people think of hypnosis today, they imagine stage-show demonstrations and over dramatized mind-tricks. Perhaps they picture people lined up, making ridiculous noises and actions seemingly without control of their own bodies at the behest of an entertainer. Despite such popular images, hypnosis has a wide range of psychological and medical applicability outside of entertainment. Trained professionals have found hypnotherapy useful as a tool to treat pain, depression, phobias, habit disorders, skin conditions, and many other psychological and medical problems. Clinical researchers lament that the public expectations of hypnosis, built up by its use for entertainment and its dramatization in media, make it more difficult to take advantage of a psychological tool that people throughout society could be benefitting from.
One group of people was quick to accept and explore the untapped potential of hypnosis in their work: criminal investigators. In the 1950s, the now partially de-classified MKUltra program began conducting hypnosis experiments on mental health patients, including experiments “hypnotically increasing ability to observe and recall a complex arrangement of physical objects.” This practice was generally considered “experimental” until a highly publicized case in 1976. A bus driver and 26 children were abducted and buried alive; after escaping, a hypnotist helped the bus driver to accurately recall the license-plate numbers on the vans used in the abduction, leading to the apprehension of all three kidnappers. After this case, police departments across the country began using forensic hypnosis as a part of investigations.
Since the 70s and 80s, the scientific validity of forensic hypnosis has been called into question. Studies have revealed that hypnotically recovered memories may be inaccurate, incomplete, or based on a leading suggestion. False memories introduced through hypnosis can be “hardened,” so that subjects cannot distinguish them from genuine memories. Courts have been split on the admissibility of hypnotically enhanced testimony at trial, and are becoming increasingly wary of its use. See Sims v. Hayette, 914 F.3d 1078, 1090 (7th Cir. 2019) (“The concealed hypnosis . . . calls into question everything [the hypnotized witness] said at trial.”).
Despite these hesitations and the scientific backlash, the Department of Justice maintains that there is a use for hypnosis in criminal investigations. According to the DOJ Criminal Resource Manual, while hypnosis should only be used “on rare occasions” and recalled memories should be corroborated, forensic hypnosis is considered an aid that investigators may employ. The DOJ states that hypnosis may be used where there is a “clear need for additional information,” and where hypnosis “can be useful” in aiding a witness’s memory.
Hypnotherapy, as described above, has been found useful in other contexts. And many of those contexts could be of help in the world of criminal justice. The things that make hypnosis dangerous for establishing facts in a court room—a subject’s openness to suggestion and confidence that the hypnosis will work—make the practice valuable in clinical settings.
In the clinical world, the field of hypnotherapy was pioneered by Milton H. Erickson, who founded the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis in 1957. Hypnotherapy has since been found effective as a tool for overcoming narcotic addictions, managing pain, fighting depression, and curing all kinds of anxieties and phobias. Hypnotherapy has also shown promise in helping survivors of domestic and sexual abuse overcome complex PTSD, helping adults to overcome childhood traumas, and providing a means to deal with traumatic grief. Different people are receptive to different types of hypnotic intervention, and trained hypnotherapists are able to tailor their interventions to the individual patient.
Addictions, pain, anxiety and depression, PTSD and other forms of trauma . . . all of these are conditions that are known to influence criminal behavior. A criminal justice system focused on prevention of crime would employ hypnotherapy with a public health approach, exploring the potential of hypnotic interventions to help people mold the physical and psychological conditions that can lead to criminal activity. Instead of featuring it in the DOJ Criminal Resource Manual as an investigation technique, we should be seeing hypnotherapy embraced by the Bureau of Prisons, probation officers, and case managers as a means of creating “correctional facilities” that live up to their name. Unfortunately, the will to explore this tool as a curative measure has not found its way to the prison system.
The problems with where hypnosis is used in the criminal justice system underscores a broader systemic issue. There is an overemphasis in the system on using innovative techniques to catch criminals. Whether a behavioral science that promises to “unlock” memories, or a piece of military tech that allows for dragnet-style spying on unsuspecting civilians, zealous investigators are often keen to employ novel tools to get ahead of the suspects they are after. This is at the expense of innocent civilians, whose constitutional and natural rights are inevitably contravened.
By and large, this desire for innovation has not crept into the world of those focused on helping to rehabilitate past convicts. Over one nine year study, 83% of the state prisoners released were rearrested for committing new crimes. Arrest data tells us that over two-thirds of state drug offenders are rearrested within five years of their release. 24% of sex offenders commit another sex crime with fifteen years of release and a much higher percentage of sex offenders are estimated to recidivate by committing non-sexual crimes that are nonetheless sexually motivated. These high rearrest rates are part of why America has the largest per-capita prison population of any country in the world.
But it does not have to be that way. Hypnotherapy is one of many techniques that, with investment and proper oversight, could prove essential to curing drug addictions and affecting long-term behavioral change. Federal courts in Minnesota have already created a unique one-on-one mentorship program to help rehabilitate offenders as they reenter society. An investment in this and similar programs, and a commitment to developing novel ways of helping people avoid criminal activity, could be the fundamental change that we need in order to see a criminal justice system that does more protecting of our society than punishing it.