The desire to enhance public safety and protect the innocent has appeared in various forms throughout the centuries. Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill in the 1970s increased the need for clinical prediction of dangerousness. In the 1980s, researchers began to develop specialized tools, or risk-assessment instruments, for prediction and management of violence.
In the 1990s, the creation and justification of risk-based legislation in the United States (habitual offender and civil commitment laws) and Canada (dangerous offender designations) were based on the initial success of risk-prediction instruments, driven by the notion that risk prediction accurately chose which offenders would or would not reoffend.
Today, decisions made based on risk prediction within the criminal justice system have attracted close scrutiny from both research and policy perspectives. Law enforcement officials, judges, juries, lawyers, clinicians, correctional administrators, and staff, as well as parole and indeterminate sentencing review boards, are tasked at each intricate stage of the criminal justice process to make decisions on the potential risk of unknown offenders and the likelihood of whether or not known offenders and groups of offenders will reoffend. Decisions about offender risk and potential for future dangerousness are critical and can have dire consequences, including releasing offenders who are a serious threat to public safety, careers being tarnished or coming to an abrupt end as a result of negligence lawsuits, imposing severe sanctions on offenders inaccurately identified as high risks for violence, and imposing financial burdens on government agencies that become involved in settlements in civil wrongful death cases and must balance the cost of increased incarceration.
Violence risk assessment has particularly significant ethical implications when forensic assessment tools are used in capital sentencing, civil commitment of sexually violent predators, and in assessing future dangerousness in juveniles. Thus, researchers and policy practitioners have recognized it is imperative that only the most accurate risk-assessment tools are being utilized for violence and reoffending prediction.
Violence and its control are significant social, political, criminal justice, mental health, and international security and public health issues affecting offenders, victims, citizens, governmental officials, and witnesses. However, due to a lack of a universally accepted definition of violence, finding the most efficient method to predict and control violent behavior has proven to be difficult. Researchers tend to rely on the definition of violence that describes behaviors that can or are expected to lead to significant physical or psychological harm. While this definition may initially seem straightforward, it becomes more complex when tools used to predict that behavior are held to tests of validity, reliability, and practicality. Criterion variables for violence include (depending on the test) self-reports to third-party reports of incidents of violence, informal social service or police contact, formal contact or police charges, formal adjudication and court convictions, and incarceration.
Conducting extensive research on the applicability of risk-assessment instruments to different populations (e.g., gender, age, and ethnicity) and under which circumstances is critical for criminal justice and clinical practice, teaching and training, and the commercial development of new instruments. Inaccurate prediction creates an extensive amount of legal and ethical issues that cannot be ignored. Therefore, the identification of the most accurate violence-prediction tool or tools must be a priority.
Risk assessments are utilized by the courts and departments of corrections in Canada, the United States, and around the world to make critical decisions in the stages of pretrial detainment, correctional management, and release. Forensic assessment instruments vary in terms of measurement of static and dynamic factors or both and are used for different populations.
The Level of Service Inventory-Revised (LSIR) is an objective offender-assessment instrument meant to identify dynamic areas of offender risk and needs that may be addressed in programming and to assist in the implementation of least restrictive criminal sanctions. Comprised of 54 items that sample a range of risk factors associated with criminal conduct and answered with a Yes/No or 0–3 rating, it is considered the most widely used and best validated measure of general criminal recidivism.
The Violence Risk Appraisal Guide (VRAG), for male offenders who have committed serious violent (including sexual) offenses, and the Sex Offender Risk Appraisal Guide (SORAG), for male offenders who have committed sexual offenses, are actuarial instruments meant to predict violence recidivism that give a statistical probability (ranging from 0-100 percent) that an offender will violently or sexually violently reoffend. Both the VRAG, comprised of 12 variables found to be highly independently correlated with violent recidivism, and the SORAG, comprised of 14 factors believed to predict the likelihood of sexual recidivism among sex offenders, are scored based on a review of a comprehensive psychosocial history that also includes information obtained from third parties and review of records. The VRAG is promoted as one of the most accurate risk-assessment instruments available and compared to the LSI-R is better at predicting violent recidivism. Regarding the prediction value of the SORAG, recent research suggests it predicts sexual recidivism with the same, or even better, accuracy of the VRAG’s violent recidivism prediction. However, the ability of the VRAG and SORAG to predict violent recidivism in female offenders has not been conducted and is therefore unknown.
The Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R) is considered to be the first reliable and valid measure of psychopathy. The PCL-R was developed by Robert Hare as a 20-item checklist to measure the construct of psychopathy and provide researchers with a long-awaited tool to empirically study and clinically assess psychopathy. Items on the PCL-R are scored on a 0 to 2 point scale based on information obtained through interview and review of an offender’s institutional file. Specific items on the checklist are linked to represent Factor 1, indicators of core personality traits, and Factor 2, indicators of chronically unstable and antisocial lifestyle, measurement of social deviance, and diagnoses of antisocial personality disorder. Once a score has been tallied, 0 to 19 indicates an absence of psychopathy, 20 to 29 indicates secondary psychopathy, while 30 to 40 is commonly associated with primary psychopathy. Overall, a large body of research has shown support for the use of the PCL-R as a risk-prediction instrument, and it has been developed for use with juveniles.
The use of the PCL-R as a risk-assessment instrument is criticized by some because its original purpose was to measure the construct of psychopathy. Counterarguments suggest that the relationship between psychopathy and violent risk is so empirically strong and that psychopathy should be considered the most important construct in the criminal justice system. Proponents of the PCL-R also maintain it is unparalleled as a risk-assessment tool.
As the use of risk-assessment instruments in the criminal justice system continues to grow, a new wave of theoretically derived and empirically validated risk-assessment tools have begun to appear. For example, the Historical, Clinical, Risk-20 (HCR-20), developed within the past 15 years, is utilized for specialized populations, such as wife assaulters, young offenders, and sex offenders. In addition, some states have created their own risk-assessment tools for more accurate prediction with state offender populations to increase validity and reliability.
Issues in Violence Risk Assessment
As previously mentioned, risk assessment instruments (LSI-R, VRAG, SORAG, and PCL-R) have been touted to be able to predict general criminal recidivism, sexual recidivism, and violent recidivism and to accurately correlate psychopathic traits with recidivism. However, the ultimate goal in offender risk assessment is predictive accuracy, and many areas still need further research. First, identifying the predictors of behavior is still more accurate than the ability to actually predict whether or not a behavior will occur in the future. Some critics are concerned that classification based on prediction raises the chance of offenders being punished for crimes they have not yet committed and might not commit.
Second, recidivism prediction can either result in one of four possibilities: true positive (predicted to reoffend and does), true negative (predicted not to reoffend and does not), false positive (predicted to reoffend and does not), and false negative (predicted not to reoffend and does). At present, maximizing true positive and true negatives, while minimizing false positive and false negatives, also known as decision errors, reflect the goal of accurate risk prediction. Unfortunately, research still suggests that violent recidivism cannot be predicted without a high false positive rate.
Third, the development and validation of many risk-assessment instruments have been based on Caucasian males, leaving unanswered questions as to whether or not the same risk-assessment tools can accurately be applied to women and non-Caucasian offender populations. Finally, although research has shown that violence risk instruments predict violence with moderate accuracy it is argued that actuarial risk prediction has the potential for harm through targeting specific groups or individuals, issues of lack of informed consent, and the potential for stigmatization and labeling of offenders determined as high-risk.
It is believed by some that the instruments differentiate a high-risk criminal subgroup or antisocial taxon from normal offenders, while others believe that the instruments identify correlated but conceptually distinct risk factors that reflect a continuum of risk potential. From an ethical viewpoint, which position an evaluator takes has critical implications for conditional release, management, and treatment of offenders. A viewpoint that the instruments differentiate a high-risk criminal subgroup would provide a rationale for habitual offender legislation but would present challenges in terms of balancing individual liberty and public safety.
However, if the viewpoint is that risk assessment identify where an individual currently sits on the continuum of risk, instruments may be used to determine an appropriate treatment strategy with promise for change. It is important to address these contrasting positions and come to a unified decision, particularly to sort out ethical objections to the use of violence-prediction instruments that assess static factors that designate an offender with a score that could permanently indicate whether or not he or she is incapable of change.
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