Introduction

Assessment

Paroling authorities make weighty decisions about sex offenders while balancing multiple interests. These decisions have significant implications for the offenders, victims, and the general public.  The diversity of the sex offender population makes decisionmaking particularly challenging.  For example, of the numerous parole eligible sex offenders, they must identify which sex offenders are most suitable for release, what types of release conditions are most appropriate and likely to be effective for each offender, which programs and services should be required for which offenders, and what types of responses  to violations should be used for non-compliant sex offenders.

Fortunately, paroling board members have the benefit of reliable risk assessment tools to help inform their decisions about individual sex offenders.  This is important, because assessments provide the necessary foundation for effective case management decisions throughout the system, including sentencing, institutional management, release, treatment, and community supervision.  Several aspects of assessment processes help ensure that the findings are most useful and reliable.  These include:

Assessment-driven, evidence-based principles
In the corrections field overall, and as applied to sex offender management practices, using assessments can significantly increase the effectiveness of risk-reducing and risk management interventions.  This is accomplished when the assessments are used to apply the following evidence-based principles of effective correctional interventions:

Using empirically-informed assessments to assess risk
For paroling authorities, understanding the factors linked to recidivism and having reliable risk assessments is particularly important for decisionmaking.  Sex offenders and non sex offenders have in common multiple risk factors that are linked to recidivism.  Some examples include age, prior arrests/convictions, antisocial attitudes and values, substance abuse, and unstable employment.  However, research shows that a number of additional risk factors are specifically linked to recidivism among sex offenders. These include, for example, prior sex crimes; relationship between the offender and victim; victim age and gender; deviant sexual arousal, interests, and/or preferences; problems with intimate relationships; and sexual preoccupations.  This research is particularly important to paroling authorities, as the research-identified risk factors may not necessarily align with their own beliefs and "gut instincts" about factors that signal increased risk among sex offenders.  In the absence of this information, assumptions about which sex offenders are higher versus lower risk may be inaccurate.

The most reliable risk estimates come from structured, research-informed risk assessment tools that have been validated on a particular offender population.  For example, for the general offender population, tools such as the Level of Service/Case Management Inventory (Andrews, Bonta, & Wormith, 2004) are commonly used to estimate "general" (i.e., non-sexual) recidivism risk.  With sex offenders, relying solely on tools that estimate general recidivism risk will provide only part of the picture, as those tools do not take into account the risk factors specific to sexual recidivism.  This oftentimes comes as no surprise to parole board members and other practitioners, who have expressed concern that "general" risk assessments do not seem to fully "fit" with sex offenders and, as a result, they may override the estimated risk level indicated by those tools.  Such overrides, however, are not necessarily prudent and may not have the desired effect of ensuring effective decisions that promote public safety.

Examples of Dynamic Risk Factors Relevant to Post-Release
Supervision and Treatment of Sex Offenders

  • Non-compliance with treatment or supervision
  • Sexual preoccupation
  • Emotional identification with children
  • Intimacy deficits, conflicts in intimate relationships
  • Substance abuse
  • Pervasive anger, hostility
  • Antisocial values, pro-offending attitudes
  • Negative social influences
  • Self-regulation deficits, impulsivity
  • Employment instability

(Adapted from the Center for Sex Offender Management (CSOM), "Managing the Challenges of Offender Reentry" 2007.  Available at http://www.csom.org/pubs/reentry_brief.pdf.)


Specialized, sex offender-specific risk assessment tools help to complete the recidivism risk picture and provide more reliable risk estimates for sexual and non-sexual recidivism for this special population, as they incorporate the proper research-identified risk factors for convicted sex offenders.  Examples of these tools include:

Most of these tools are based primarily or exclusively on static, or largely unchangeable risk factors, which are important for estimating risk over the long term.  More recently, specialized risk assessment tools have been developed to incorporate changeable or dynamic risk factors (i.e., criminogenic needs) among sex offenders.  Including these dynamic risk factors improves the accuracy of risk assessment and allows for exploring changes in risk that may occur in the shorter-term. The best-supported tools in this regard are the Stable- and Acute-2007, which are particularly helpful for guiding supervision efforts with sex offenders.  In addition to the Stable-2007, the Sex Offender Treatment Intervention and Progress Scale (SOTIPS; McGrath, Cumming, and Lasher, 2013) is a primary example of a research-supported tool to assessing changes in dynamic risk factors for sex offenders, particularly throughout the course of treatment.

Factors not clearly linked to recidivism among sex offenders

Some factors are commonly perceived to signal increased risk among sex offenders, yet research does not clearly show such a link. These include factors such as low self-esteem, mental health difficulties such as depression or anxiety, denial, and victim empathy deficits.  It is not uncommon for parole board members to place heavy weight some of these issues when making parole decisions, and some parole boards have formally incorporated them into structured guidelines or decisionmaking tools.  However, it is important to emphasize that these factors do not – in and of themselves – provide a reliable indicator of a person's risk to reoffend.  And as indicated by the evidence-based "need principle," because they are non-criminogenic, focusing primarily on these factors to guide interventions and decisionmaking will not be effective in reducing risk among sex offenders.

This is not to suggest that these factors are irrelevant or unimportant.  While they may not be directly linked to recidivism, some are considered responsivity factors which may impact engagement and response to treatment and supervision if not addressed.  Moreover, they may still be important considerations for paroling authorities, who must take into account a range of issues (not solely risk-reduction) when making decisions. The key is to not place primary weight on these factors based on the belief that they indicate high risk for a given sex offender.


Because of their value for guiding decisions and strategies at various points in the system, ideally the key agencies/entities involved in sex offender management efforts (e.g., correctional staff, institutional and community-based treatment providers, paroling authorities, community supervision officers) adopt the same risk assessment tool(s) for use across agencies.  This provides a common and consistent language by which stakeholders can communicate about case management decisions pre-sentencing, during the period of incarceration, to inform release decisionmaking, through the transition process, and upon return to the community.

Implications for Paroling Authorities
Having specialized knowledge and understanding about sex offenders and the risk factors linked to recidivism (and those that are not) better positions parole board members to make well-informed, objective, and effective decisions in these cases, and ultimately promote public safety.  The findings from specialized, sex offender-specific risk assessment tools offer a mechanism by which parole board members can be informed about a given individual's current risk for sexual and non-sexual recidivism, changes in risk that have occurred over time, and areas that should be an ongoing focus of post-release supervision in the community.  With respect to the use of assessments, parole boards can support more effective outcomes with sex offenders by:

Recognizing that some issues commonly perceived as signaling higher risk (e.g., denial, victim empathy deficits) are not clearly linked to recidivism, and taking steps to prevent over-relying on these non-criminogenic factors when making release decisions.


< A Model Framework:
The Comprehensive Approach
to Sex Offender Management

Treatment >