Risk assessment in Corrections


Larry Motiuk

Historical background

Over many millennia, risk assessment has evolved from the simple tallying of signs etched on clay tablets to the complex quantifying of indicators digitized on electronic tablets. Human history is filled with advisors using their knowledge and expertise to help those who are faced with making risky decisions.  

A risk-based analysis has long been the foundation on which to best allocate resources and controls, whether for making decisions about security, health or the environment. While the practice of risk assessment has a long history, it is largely due to the contributions of various French mathematicians – such as Pascal, de Fermet, Poisson and Laplace – that probability theory and statistics became synonymous with the actuarial method of risk assessment.  

Also noteworthy is another French scientist, Louis Pasteur, who applied a quantitative approach in the laboratory to make the important discovery of vaccinations in the prevention of disease. These and others paved the way forward for the risk assessments that we currently use.

Risk assessment evolution in corrections 

Today, the actuarial method is widely used in banking, insurance, health and criminal justice to assist with making informed risk decisions about an individual, not groups of people. In the criminal justice system, standardized assessment processes and research-based instruments are being used in courts to inform pre-trial detention and sentencing.  

Afterwards, they are used again in correctional systems to determine the security level and placement, treatment focus and dosage, temporary absence and parole release decisions as well as having a role in community supervision. Trained and certified professionals administer these objective risk assessment tools in forensic psychology and case management.  

In the 80s, the State of California and the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons were the early pioneers in developing and applying these assessment tools. Since the mid-90s, Canadian Federal and Provincial corrections have incorporated objective measures into their formulations about decisions that reflect risk to the public, staff, and offenders. Australia, Britain, New Zealand, Singapore and many other jurisdictions around the world have also implemented objective measures.

Risk assessment facts and features  

All of these actuarial tools are based on well-established and statistically robust predictors (i.e., younger age, youth/adult criminal history, offence severity, substance misuse) of criminal futures.  

Upon reassessment, other factors such as security incidents, program completion, and progress made in addressing specific needs related to the desistance of criminal behavior are considered.  

Taken together, a probability statement or estimation is made about institutional performance and post-release adjustment without targeted intervention. These “risk markers” have been shown to predict both prison misconduct (like assaults, contraband) and recidivism (like parole revocations, new convictions).  

For decades, the various “risk markers” contained in these assessment tools have been scientifically tested and verified in the penological literature. Objective classification tools and psychological tests complement clinical impressions about an individual’s level of risk during the assessment and correctional planning process.  

The tools are not deemed to be determinative but contribute to making informed decisions about security and safety. The risk assessment(s) act as the guidepost whereby the professional or case management team can anchor other observations that are not easily captured by an actuarial instrument. Other considerations can and often do come into play when interventions are being delivered to change lives and protect others.

Static and dynamic risk factors   

Two areas serve as foundations for both risk assessments and decision-making. Static risk factors refer to criminal history background, such as the number and variety of criminal convictions, breaches of trust (escape, breach of probations, revocations) and previous exposure/response to the criminal justice system (probation and/or incarceration).  

Dynamic risk factors refer to criminogenic needs (e.g. education, employment, substance misuse, attitudes) that can reflect change in an individual. These dynamic factors can also be used as a source of strengths (or protective factors) that enhance an individual’s ability to develop positive relationships, deal with stress and promote law-abiding behavior.  

This is a critical component of not only risk assessment, but also of case management or correctional planning because this is where active intervention takes place. While not much can be done about static factors (e.g., criminal history), there is considerable predictive power in those variables and this is where dynamic risk factors come into play. These case-specific needs are considered to be a subset of overall risk. The goal is to effectively target these factors and apply appropriate interventions to reduce the likelihood of future criminal behaviour.

Mastering the risk assessment toolbox    

Correctional practitioners must master a broad range of scientifically validated methods and strategies. They are required to systematically gather information from many sources (i.e., police, courts, jail and forensic settings, etc.) and weigh all this information according to the best clinical and actuarial methods. The goal is to generate accurate and valuable predictions about institutional adjustment, escape risk and recidivism.  

A practitioners’ assessment work can have profound consequences for the individual case in question but also for the broader institutional community and the larger society outside. Most acknowledge the importance of incorporating the best available scientific data about the evolving professional and ethical standards into their work.  

However, the complexity and rapid growth of research data on correctional practice can often make it difficult for them to do so. Policy documents and practice guidelines are essential to helping correctional administrators and practitioners meet their obligations to promote quality outcomes, reduced risk and heightened service delivery within their respective system. 

Concerns have been raised that risk assessments based on criminal history reflect racial disparities in charging, prosecuting and sentencing. The same is true for risk assessments that include items indicative of education, employment, finances and health. This is but one reason why correctional decisions should never be made solely on any one tool or aspect.  

Every correctional decision involves a criminal justice professional who must weigh the “relevance” of all available evidence and more. This requires decision-makers to have both the training and experience in cultural competence to be aware of potential biases in determinations about risk.

Assessing risk in corrections: Towards an integrated approach

So, where are we now in our ability to assess risk in corrections?  

The short answer to that question is “much better off than we were even a decade or so ago”. Some jurisdictions have revised their instruments to incorporate both static and dynamic risk factors as well as strengths to improve and predict criminal behavior.  

Moreover, there are now instruments understood to be gender-neutral; some are designed to be gender-normed or even gender-informed. There are also computer-based training applications available for credentialing staff in the administration of actuarial tools.  

The current generation of assessors in corrections views risk assessment as an integrated process incorporating a variety of methodologies. That is, a combination of structured professional judgement assisted by the administration of actuarial tools.  

While individualized risk assessment data can be organized in a structured fashion on automated management information systems, correctional jurisdictions are able to extract valuable corporate data to profile the entire institutional or community population, forecast growth, monitor changes in composition, improve risk management procedures, and measure correctional performance. Automation can also yield helpful information for audit and evaluative purposes. This, in turn, has the potential to improve operations and reduce costs.  

Faced with the correctional challenges of the 2020s, new streamlined assessment techniques (i.e., machine learning approaches) and the use of systematic reassessment (i.e., tailored algorithms) will improve the way correctional systems manage both highly individualized and multifactorial risk.  

It appears that the day is fast approaching when we will be able to systematically assess and reassess individuals efficiently and effectively in a comprehensive and integrated fashion with hand-held mobile devices and cloud-based technology. In addition, we are getting ready to use artificial intelligence to design, develop and deliver a risk assessment tutoring system to assist staff with decision-making.  

Where are we in our ability to assess risk? We are about to make some important breakthroughs once again!

Larry Motiuk

Larry Motiuk has a long career in corrections beginning with the psychology department at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre and then at the National Headquarters Correctional Service of Canada since the late eighties. He has been Director General of Research, Director General of Offender Programs and Reintegration and Special Advisor Infrastructure Renewal. He was appointed as Assistant Commissioner Policy in 2013 and has held that position since that time. Larry holds a PhD in Psychology from Carleton University, Ottawa. 

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