Risk need assessments: Public safety depends on it
Fostering successful offender reintegration amid the challenges of accurate risk prediction
By Steven Jones
When meteorologists are forecasting the weather, there is always a chance they will get it wrong. Forecasting the weather is a science, and there is a process to it. What happens when they get it wrong? It causes an inconvenience in someone’s day. Assessing someone’s risk of committing a new crime is a prediction based on an actuarial instrument; the results, however, can be more complicated and at times extremely dangerous.
The role of risk assessments
Risk and needs assessments play a pivotal role in the parole and probation process, serving as crucial tools for ensuring public safety, rehabilitation and successful reintegration of offenders into society. These assessments are designed to evaluate the likelihood of an offender reoffending and to identify their specific criminogenic needs, such as substance abuse or anti-social behavior.
By systematically analyzing an offender’s risk level and needs, authorities can tailor supervision and intervention plans to address the root causes of criminal behavior. This not only helps reduce the risk of future criminal activity but also promotes the offender’s personal growth and rehabilitation.
Moreover, a well-structured risk and needs assessment system promotes fairness and consistency in parole and probation decisions, ensuring that it is granted or denied based on objective criteria rather than subjective judgments, ultimately fostering a more just and effective criminal justice system.
According to Madeline Carter in “Dosage Probation,”  the dosage model suggests the length of supervision should be determined by the number of hours of intervention required to reduce the risk. Basically, high-risk offenders need the most treatment and low-risk offenders do not need as much. Giving an offender too much treatment could cause them to reoffend.
Managing the dosage is extremely important because a person can inadvertently be put into a position where they reoffend due to the feeling they have no choice. For example, an offender on parole comes out as a low risk but the officer feels the need to supervise this offender the same way they would a high-risk offender. The offender would in turn feel overwhelmed and may feel pressured into reoffending.
This is not to say that everyone who is assessed wrong is going to commit a crime. Studies have shown, according to the NIC, that corrections professionals face-to-face contact with offenders can be an effective intervention, and, as such, corrections professionals play a key role as agents of change. [2-4] Risk-reducing interventions complement those provided by others (e.g., treatment providers) and, as such, it is reasonable to consider their interventions as contributing to the minimum dosage necessary to reduce recidivism.
A multifaceted approach
Managing the risk of offenders on parole or probation is a critical aspect of the criminal justice system aimed at reducing recidivism and enhancing community safety. To effectively address this challenge, a multifaceted approach is required:
- Comprehensive risk assessments should be conducted during the intake process, utilizing validated tools and assessments to determine an individual’s likelihood of reoffending. These assessments should consider factors such as the nature of the offense, criminal history, substance abuse issues, mental health status and social support systems. By accurately identifying the level of risk, parole and probation officers can tailor supervision plans and interventions accordingly, ensuring that high-risk offenders receive more intensive monitoring and support.
- Supervision and monitoring play a critical role in managing risk. Parole and probation officers must maintain regular contact with the offenders under their supervision, enforcing conditions and ensuring compliance with court orders. Electronic monitoring, curfews and drug testing can be utilized to monitor and enforce compliance effectively. Additionally, cognitive-behavioral programs, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, and educational or vocational training should be made available to address the root causes of criminal behavior and support rehabilitation efforts. Collaboration with community organizations and stakeholders is also essential to provide a network of support that can help offenders reintegrate successfully into society while minimizing the risk of reoffending.
Ultimately, a balanced approach that combines risk assessment, supervision and support services is crucial in managing the risk of offenders on parole or probation and promoting their successful reintegration into the community.
Prioritize accurate and evidence-based assessments
Inaccurate risk needs assessments in parole and probation pose a grave threat to both public safety and the welfare of offenders under supervision themselves. When these assessments fail to accurately gauge an offender’s risk factors, they can result in the premature release of potentially dangerous offenders back into society. This not only endangers the community but also undermines the rehabilitation process as offenders under supervision may not receive the appropriate interventions and support they need.
However, unfair and biased assessments may lead to the unnecessary incarceration of offenders who pose a lower risk to society, perpetuating the cycle of incarceration and hindering their chances of rehabilitation.
In either case, the consequences of inaccurate risk needs assessments in parole and probation can be dire. It is imperative that systems prioritize accurate and evidence-based assessments to strike a balance between public safety and the reintegration of offenders into society.
1. Carter M. (2020.) Dosage Probation: A Prescription Based on Two Pilot Sites’ Experiences (Project Number 18CS05GKX8). National Institute of Corrections.
2. Bonta J, Rugge T, Scott TL, Bourgon G, Yessine AK. (2008.) Exploring the black box of community supervision. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 47:248–270.
3. Bonta J, Bourgon G, Rugge T, Scott TL, Yessine AK, Gutierrez L. (2011.) An experimental demonstration of training probation officers in evidence-based community supervision. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 38:1127–1148.
4. Robinson CR, Lowenkamp CT, Holsinger AM, VanBenschoten S, Alexander M, Oleson JC. (2012.) A random study of Staff Training Aimed at Reducing Re-arrest (STARR): Using core correctional practices in probation interactions. Journal of Crime and Justice, 35:167–188.
About the author
Steven Jones is currently a professional development specialist with the American Correctional Association (ACA). Prior to joining ACA in 2022, he worked as a parole unit supervisor for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Steven began his correctional career in 2013 with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as a correctional officer at the Telford Unit in New Boston, Texas. He then moved to the Parole Division as a parole officer, program supervisor and unit supervisor. Steven earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from the University of North Texas.
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