Assessing risk: supervision of lower level sex offenders.

Author:DeMichele, Matthew

Authors' Note: The development of this article was funded by cooperative agreement number 06PEI07GJ01 from the National Institute of Corrections, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view or opinions stated in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official opinion or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Risk assessment is a central component of offender supervision. Risk assessment instruments are used to determine the relative probability of an individual returning to prison within a certain amount of time. The community corrections field is the fastest-growing segment of the criminal justice system. Some of this population is composed of high-risk offenders who pose an immediate probability of being reincarcerated. However, it is typical for offenders on the other end of the risk spectrum to be left out of policy and practice debates.

If risk assessment instruments are able to separate offenders according to their relative probability to re-offend, then if is only logical to assume that some offenders must score on the lower end of such a scale. For example, sex offenders exist across the risk continuum. Care must be taken, however, before talking in public about lower level sex offenders because this runs counter to contemporary political and public opinion. Does this silence and apprehension lead to ineffective policies and practices? Should the community corrections field bury its head in the sand and act as though all sex offenders are sensational cases? If that is so, why bother using a risk assessment instrument? If there were no risk assessments, supervision conditions and interventions would be the same for everyone convicted of a sex offense. This suggests that someone with no previous criminal history who commits a noncontact offense would be treated the same as someone with many previous convictions and extensive illegal sexual ideation.

Evidence-based practices are rooted in actuarial risk assessments to triage cases and individualize supervision plans. This provides community corrections officers with the information needed to fit case plans to the needs and learning style of the particular offender. The theoretical underpinning here is a social psychological approach that argues that social learning and psychological traits interact to shape criminal and noncriminal behaviors. Responsivity refers to the responsiveness of a particular offender to receive different interventions.

Sex offenses receive so much public scrutiny and generate strong emotional reactions from society at large. However, the criminal justice community cannot react with such emotion. Criminal justice officials must be rational arbiters of the law in pursuit of effective policies that are cost-effective, retributive, humane, conducive to developing pro-social behaviors and capable of deterring future behavior. Criminal and legal interventions will not eliminate sex-related crimes; instead, a collaborative approach is needed to incorporate the strengths of the police, community corrections, jails and prisons, treatment providers, and others to supervise and prevent future sex offenses. For this reason, the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) and the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) have worked together to develop a CD-ROM training focused on building bridges between law enforcement, jails and community corrections professionals to supervise lower level sex offenders. This training curriculum. "Supervising Low-Level Sex Offenders in the Community: An Integrated Model," focuses specifically on two areas: risk assessment and collaboration. The focus of this article is on the use of risk assessments and considerations for supervising lower level sex offenders as described in the first module of the training curriculum.

Risk Assessment

Risk assessment involves a process in which profiles are developed based on what is known about a particular group's past behavioral patterns. Here is how the risk assessment process works:

Groups are defined by having a number of factors in common that are statistically relevant to predicting the likelihood of repeat offending. Those groups exhibiting a high degree of reoffending are labeled high risk. A usual analogy can be drawn from medicine. In medical studies, individuals grouped by certain characteristics are studied in an attempt to identify the correlates of the development or progression of certain diseases (Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission. 2001).

Risk assessments are used for various reasons in the criminal justice system. For sex offenders, risk assessments are used to determine sentencing, determine institutional placement, aid in treatment planning, develop release conditions and develop restrictiveness conditions (Barbaree et al., 2001). Risk assessment has been described as "the cornerstone of effective offender management" (Craig, Beech and Browne, 2006). The underlying principles of risk assessment include the following:

* Risk assessments help to overcome perceptions of risk;

* Future behavior can be somewhat reliably predicted by looking at a combination of stable (constant) and dynamic (changeable) factors;

* Identifying risk levels can be used to efficiently guide supervision strategies;

* Risk assessment is an ongoing process: and

* Evidence-based practices guide the process.

Predicting Behavior

How do criminal justice professionals...

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