About the author: This article was written by Julia Shaw, EAPL-S co-president and Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia (Canada).
View this document in it's full glory by downloading the pdf here.Can we predict offender risk?".
Forensic risk assessment is concerned with calculating how likely it is that antisocial behavior or criminal offending will occur. This question is most commonly posed when an individual has recently been found guilty of a crime, as authorities need to know how to appropriately deal with the individual. Psychologists, social workers or legal professionals conduct these assessments, and they form an important part of decisions regarding what kind of prison is most appropriate for an offender (e.g., maximum security), whether to release an offender (e.g., to parole), and what factors need to be targeted by interventions.
This fact-sheet is intended to aid those who deal with offenders by reviewing recent literature in the field, including tools used to assess risk, and risk factors for offending.
There are three types of risk assessments: Actuarial, unstructured clinical and structured clinical judgment. Actuarial tools are lists of factors that have been statistically established to be related to offending. For example, because offenders who are younger are more likely to re-offend, age is often considered a statistically based risk factor. These kinds of tools can typically be administered by individuals with only minimal training, as they are often easy to do. Unstructured clinical judgment, on the other hand, relies on an expert’s ability to determine the risk of an individual based on personal experience and knowledge. Finally, structured clinical judgment is a combination of the two, by providing a guide of empirically based items that are recommended for a clinician to examine in-depth. According to large literature reviews, actuarial tools outperform structured clinical judgment, which in turn outperforms unstructured clinical judgment. Unstructured clinical judgment (based on “common sense”) is often considered an antiquated and potentially misleading method of assessing risk that is strongly recommended against.
The most commonly used actuarial instruments include: Violent Risk Appraisal Guide (VRAG), Sex Offender Risk Appraisal Guide (SORAG), Level of Service Inventory – Revised (LSI-R), STATIC-99/ STATIC-2002.
The most commonly used structured clinical instruments include: Psychopathy Checklist – Revised (PCL-R), HCR-20 (Historical, Clinical, Risk-20), Sexual Violence Risk -20 (SVR-20), Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth (SAVRY).
Research dedicated to this topic has identified several universal risk factors, and some risk factors that are crime specific. Good risk assessment tools will tap into some or all of these empirically validated risk factors, and also consider protective factors that reduce the risk of offending. Note that the more risk factors that apply to an individual the more likely he or she is to offend. Because we cannot predict the future, it is advised that individuals refrain from saying that an individual will re-offend. Risk factors are often divided into two categories; static and dynamic.
Offender characteristics that are predictive of re-offending but cannot be changed are considered static. These include:
Characteristics of an offender that can be changed are considered dynamic. These are factors that should be primarily addressed by interventions, and include:
In addition to their scores on risk assessment scales, adult, juvenile, sexual and mentally disordered offenders have uniquely important risk factors. The primary risk factors most highly correlated with re-offending are listed for each type of offender below:
Risk assessment will always be a predictive judgment and as such there will be errors in judgment. However, as those who deal with forensic populations, it is our duty to use up-to-date empirically based methods to make predictions that are as accurate as possible.
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