Maximizing Assessment Results in Corrections

A Five-Level Risk and Needs System: Maximizing Assessment Results in Corrections through the Development of a Common Language

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Risk and needs assessments are now routinely used in correctional systems in the United States to estimate a person’s likelihood of recidivism and provide direction concerning appropriate correctional interventions.1 Specifically, they inform sentencing, determine the need for and nature of rehabilitation programs, inform decisions concerning conditional release, and allow community supervision officers to tailor conditions to a person’s specific strengths, skill deficits, and reintegration challenges. In short, risk and needs assessments provide a roadmap for effective correctional rehabilitation initiatives. When properly understood and implemented, they can help correctional organizations to provide the types and dosages of services that are empirically related to reductions in reoffending.

Despite considerable advances in risk and needs assessment, however, the widespread use of a variety of risk and needs assessment instruments has created new challenges. Foremost, how do we compare the results of assessments conducted with different instruments? Although all of these instruments are trying to measure risk and needs, each instrument is unique in that it may comprise varying factors and weight those factors differently from other instruments. Furthermore, the field has not set standards or specifications about the terminology used to describe risk and needs categories across all of these instruments.  Although some risk and needs instruments use three nominal risk and needs categories (low, moderate, high), others use four nominal categories (low, low-moderate, moderate-high, high), and still others use five (low, low-moderate, moderate, moderate-high, high). Some instruments use different terms entirely (e.g., poor, fair, good, very good).

Complicating matters further, there are no standard definitions of these nominal risk and needs categories, so “low risk,” for example, might have different definitions from one instrument to the next. As such, the field of assessment and risk research struggles with perhaps its most significant obstacle: the absence of a precise, standardized language to communicate about risk. To further illustrate this problem, researchers5 compared risk-level definitions among five assessment measures and found that only 3 percent of the people assessed were identified as high risk across all five instruments and only 4 percent of the people were identified as low risk by all five measures. This means that the same person can be described by different categories across different assessment instruments, or people in the same category can be described differently across different assessment instruments.

Beyond the lack of standard definitions of risk and needs categories, there is no consensus about what various labels mean with regard to the probability of reoffending or the specific profile of needs in each risk level. This lack of consensus occurs not just across different instruments, but also across and within jurisdictions that use the same instrument but in different ways. The case study in Box 1 illustrates some of these challenges and the impact on the provision of effective correctional services.

For corrections and other criminal justice professionals, establishing a standard system for communicating about risk and needs levels would have tremendous benefits for the effectiveness of correctional systems. First, if professionals within and across jurisdictions used agreed-upon terms to describe risk and needs levels, everyone would have confidence that they knew what the terms meant, regardless of the instrument used. Consequently, they could have increased confidence that like people would be treated in like ways, regardless of the instrument used. Second, closely aligned, clearly defined, evidence-informed risk and needs levels would help to ensure that assessment results are used to determine the appropriate type and intensity of program and supervision resources and inform case planning. Third, this system would allow jurisdictions to save costs without jeopardizing public safety by more effectively matching interventions to people based on their likelihood of reoffending and their profile of needs and strengths. Fourth, for researchers, standardized risk and needs levels would facilitate comparative research, thereby further informing policy and practice.

Over the past two years, the NRRC, in partnership with Drs. Karl Hanson and Guy Bourgon of Public Safety Canada, has facilitated efforts to examine and improve the standardization of the terminology associated with risk and needs levels and the interpretation and application of risk and needs assessment results in correctional settings. From August 2014 to December 2015, the NRRC convened meetings of leading international experts on risk and needs assessments—including researchers from multiple disciplines, scientists, policymakers, and correctional practitioners—to develop a standard way to communicate about risk and needs, regardless of the assessment instrument in use.

This white paper reports the results of those efforts. It is written for researchers, practitioners, and policymakers who share the goal of reducing recidivism by improving the application of risk and needs assessments. Specifically, this white paper presents a model for supporting the implementation of Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) principles through a standardized five-level risk and needs assessment system. The five levels are designed to inform case planning, guide how corrections and criminal justice professionals classify risk and needs, and help identify people who can benefit most from intervention. This empirically based system is intended to be broadly applicable and useful, and to increase the accountability of all system actors. Implementing this system does not require developing or adopting new risk and needs assessment instruments; rather, it involves realigning the existing information collected by agencies from their validated risk and needs assessment instruments into a system that uses standard terminology. This standard terminology allows for greater clarity when people move from one part of the system to another or from one jurisdiction to another, facilitates clear communication between different treatment providers and correctional supervisors, and provides guidance regarding treatment dosage and transition from one risk and needs level to another, regardless of what risk and needs assessment instrument is used or in what jurisdiction a person may reside.

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Corrections and Reentry, A Five-Level Risk and Needs System Report by The Council of State Governments on Scribd