Imagine that a couple goes to the grocery store, fills a cart with their desired items, walks to the check-out lane, and the clerk simply eyeballs their selections and says, "looks like about $200 worth to me." They probably would not be too happy with this approach. Of course, if they felt that it was an underestimate, they might be willing to let it go, but most people would expect a more systematic means of tallying the bill. Indeed, the wide-spread use of barcode scanners is yet the latest attempt to take human error out of the cashier process.
As ridiculous as this example may seem, it is a fairly decent analogy for how criminal justice agencies often attempt to determine what is "wrong" with offenders and how best to prepare them for reentry to the community. A large number of evaluations of correctional programs across the country have found that offender assessment is one of the most poorly implemented principles of effective offender intervention. (1) Central to this weakness is a frequent reliance on subjective, clinical assessments of offenders' likelihood of re-offending (risk) and specific risk factors (criminogenic needs), without the aid of standard, objective assessment instruments.
The accurate and objective assessment of offender risk, needs and responsivity is one of the most important features of an effective correctional treatment system. (2) Providing a criminal justice intervention to an offender absent careful consideration of the offender's risk and need for that intervention is akin to prescribing a drug to a patient without a diagnosis of what is wrong.
Approaches To Offender Assessment
How best to assess offender risk and needs has been an ongoing concern within the field of criminal justice. This question is embedded in the larger discussion in the field of psychology about the most effective approach to conduct any sort of individual assessment. Much of this discussion has focused on the dichotomy of clinical versus actuarial assessment. Clinical assessment refers to the approach that has been used for generations to gain insight into the problems of any individual undergoing treatment. This involves a trained (usually) practitioner, the clinician, sitting down with a client who is being considered for treatment and asking that client a series of questions, or perhaps even having a more open-ended discussion. For corrections' purposes, a clinician may be a psychologist/psychiatrist, social worker, corrections counselor, parole official, etc. Clinical assessment, then, is essentially an interpersonal process that occurs between individuals, where one person is charged with making a decision about providing services to the other.
The logic behind the clinical approach to assessment is that the clinician has a basis of experience, expertise and perhaps even natural insight that allows for an impressionistic interpretation of what is wrong with the client. The key point is that the questions that the clinician asks will often be idiosyncratic, inconsistent, unstructured and perhaps only tangentially related to the problem under consideration; that is to say, they may or may not be "good" questions. Some clinicians may ask good questions most of the time, some may ask bad questions most of the time. More often than not, clinicians will be hit or miss in their assessments (some studies have found that clinical assessment produces prediction success rates that are worse than flipping a coin).
The actuarial or mechanical approach to assessment attempts to control the subjectivity and inconsistency inherent in the clinical approach by structuring a set of observations based on discovered patterns of behavior across large numbers of cases. The observations (factors) that are recorded are driven by a statistical understanding of the relationship between the factor and the behavior or outcome in question. For example, if lung cancer is found to develop in a large percentage of cigarette smokers, but much less so in nonsmokers, a cancer screening tool would likely ask questions about smoking habits (smoking would be a risk factor), among other things. An actuarial assessment tool asks the same set of questions of each individual...