Use of Valid Actuarial Assessments of Risk and Needs

Background and Context

Preventing crime and ensuring community safety are, along with the just administration of punishment, among the principal goals for the agencies of the criminal justice system. Identifying and understanding an offenders' risk to recidivate is key to achieving these goals.

In the absence of objective, validated risk assessment tools, subjective assessment of risk will likely occur.  Traditionally, such assessments in criminal justice have been accomplished by review and analysis of the offender's background and circumstances, prior criminal involvement, if any, and the seriousness of the crime itself—without the use of empirically based risk and needs assessment tools. Much of this approach to the assessment of risk focused on criteria which are not empirically related to risk, but rather reflect cumulative experiences and intuitive judgments of decision-makers and political considerations. The result is often an inaccurate assessment of recidivism risk, either too high or too low. Either result is problematic in terms of the effective and efficient operation of the criminal justice system.

Formal risk assessment using actuarial instruments has become a common feature of parole decision-making. The majority of paroling authorities responding to a recent national survey reported using such instruments (Kinnevy and Caplan, 2008).  Risk assessment has also been widely adopted in community and institutional corrections since the 1980s, and is a principal element of the evidence-based practices models for corrections (Bogue, et al 2004).

As offenders are considered for parole and a determination is made as to when to release an offender from custody to the community, Boards have an opportunity to consider information regarding the likelihood of future reoffending.  This will help inform what they require of an offender prior to a parole release—what programming they should complete in order to reduce their risk of reoffending, for instance.  And it will also inform their decisionmaking about the conditions of supervision that will be appropriate to reduce or manage the risk of individual released on parole.   The level of risk posed by an offender eligible for parole is, for these reasons, a valuable piece of information in the release decision process.

This Action Guide is particularly focused on how paroling authorities might use the information from an empirically valid risk assessment instrument regarding low risk offenders.  In addition, the NPRC has developed a separate Action Guide that provides paroling authority members with a thorough introduction to the science and practice of risk assessment, including working to identify and put into place such tools in their own jurisdictions.  It is recommended that users consult that Action Guide and view it as an important companion and foundational resource before moving forward with this Action Guide on a specific strategy for considering the release of low risk offenders. 


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Understanding the Evidence
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Release Decision-Making
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