Offender Classification

II. Varieties of Offender Classification

A. Risk/Needs Assessment

The assessment of risk and needs is the most common form of offender classification. This form may entail separate instruments, one for risk and at least one for needs. Risk instruments, which resemble questionnaires, occur by interview or the offender’s self-report, according to the design of the tool in question. Choice of risk instrument also depends upon the correctional setting in which it is to be administered. Risk assessment serves different purposes, depending upon the correctional context in which it takes place. Risk assessment tools used by probation and parole typically forecast the offender’s risk of rearrest while under community supervision. Instruments employed by prison and jail authorities, on the other hand, predict a detainee’s or inmate’s adjustment to confinement. Jail risk assessment focuses on inmates’ risk of harm to other detainees and need for protective custody, to guide housing decisions as well as to prevent harm to self, particularly suicide. The objectives of prison classification differ depending upon whether external or internal classification is taking place. The purpose of external classification is to determine whether the inmate can be housed in a general population, and if so, at what level (minimum, medium, or maximum custody). The objective of internal classification is to assess the inmate’s risk in the facility to which he or she has been assigned. This determination subsequently affects where the inmate will be housed, with whom, and with what privileges (programs, work assignments, etc.).

The evolution of formal instruments measuring offender risk and needs occurred over four “generations” (Andrews, Bonta, & Wormith, 2006). First-generation instruments were characterized by reliance on professional judgment and experience, also referred to as clinical judgment. Introduction of the salient factor score by the U.S. Parole Commission (Hoffman & Beck, 1974) and the Wisconsin Classification System (Baird, 1979) in the 1970s ushered in a second generation of risk assessments. Also known as actuarial tools, second-generation instruments are empirically derived tools whose items are chosen for their statistical correlations with recidivism.

Reliance on criminal history items (e.g., age at first adjudication, number of prior convictions, number of prior revocations of community supervision) and items assessing other static (i.e., unalterable) offender characteristics are distinguishing features of second-generation instruments. To the extent measures other than criminal history (e.g., drug or alcohol use and association with criminal companions) are used, such items capture historic data only. That is, second-generation tools may assess substance abuse and nature of associates up until the offender’s encounter with the criminal justice system, but not the status of current use or associations.

Third-generation instruments preserve the evidencebased feature of second-generation tools, in that they rely on items exhibiting a statistical correlation with recidivism, but differ in the extent to which dynamic correlates of recidivism are used to assess offender risk. Examples of dynamic factors include use of leisure time, living arrangements, and ability to manage emotions. The use of dynamic measures allows instruments to be sensitive to changes in the offender circumstances, thus facilitating reassessments of risk at a later date. If all the information captured in a risk assessment tool consisted only of historical items, this would not be possible.

The Level of Service Inventory–Revised (LSI–R) is a third-generation risk assessment instrument. The LSI–R is a semi-structured interview consisting of 54 items measuring criminal history, education and employment, financial status, family/marital relations, living accommodations, extent of criminal companions, alcohol/drug problems, mental health status, and attitudes toward correctional supervision (Andrews & Bonta, 2001). Thus, the LSI–R includes both risk and needs items within the same instrument, whereas the salient factor score and Wisconsin models require administration of additional instruments for the assessment of those same offender needs. In contrast to stand-alone needs assessments, the LSI–R includes only those needs shown by research to influence criminal behavior.

Fourth-generation instruments are referred to as systematic and comprehensive because they measure factors important to treatment effectiveness. Fourth-generation tools embody all principles of effective correctional treatment by combining assessment of both static and dynamic predictors of risk with a case management component for setting treatment goals. The case management plan directs the officer’s focus on the offender’s criminogenic needs and responsivity factors (Andrews et al., 2006).

The evolution of risk/needs classification tools corresponds with research discoveries about the best predictors of offender recidivism (Gendreau, Little, & Goggin, 1996) as well as the nature of effective correctional treatments (Andrews, Zinger, et al., 1990). These include the principles of risk, needs, and responsivity. The principle of risk is that treatment is most effective on high-risk offenders. The needs principle holds that effective treatments will be those that take dynamic, criminogenic needs—those most likely to cause continued lawbreaking—into account. The responsivity principle indicates that interventions should take offender characteristics such as learning style, motivation, gender, and ethnicity into account when matching subjects to programs. According to a meta-analysis of 154 evaluations of adult and juvenile correctional treatments, Andrews, Bonta, and Hoge (1990) discovered that effective programs were those that practiced all three principles. Of much additional importance, failure to observe the principles of effective correctional treatment elevates the risks posed by low- and moderate-risk offenders. Using a sample of 7,366 offenders assigned to either community supervision or residential facilities, Lowencamp and Latessa (2005) compared recidivism rates across different risk categories. They found that low- and low/moderate-risk offenders experienced higher recidivism rates when placed in residential treatment, compared to placement on community supervision alone.

While there is much empirical support for the supremacy of actuarial instruments over those favoring clinical or diagnostic judgment (see, e.g., Grove & Meehl, 1996; Monahan, 1981), the importance of dynamic variables for prediction accuracy is less certain. In a survey of metaanalytic studies of the capacity of instruments from each generation to predict general recidivism, Andrews et al. (2006) found that first-generation tools had an average predictive validity (r) estimate of .10; second-generation tools, .42; third-generation tools, between .33 and 40; and fourth-generation tools, .41. The larger the value of r, the greater the amount of error one would avoid in relying on the prediction instrument in question. Thus, best validity performances came from instruments that emphasized static factors. In fact, removal of dynamic variables such as employment and living arrangements improved the predictive accuracy of the salient factor score, the assessment tool used by the U.S. Parole Commission (Hoffman, 1994).While the predictive accuracy of third- and fourth-generation tools does not yet outpace that of the second-generation tools, the later instruments are superior for their ability to enlighten the user about criminogenic needs and responsivity factors crucial for achieving successful case outcome.

Instruments such as the salient factor score, LSI–R, and the Wisconsin model were all designed to predict general recidivism. Also available are assessment tools that predict particular forms of recidivism such as the risk of new violence, or even more specifically, risk of new sexual or domestic violence. Examples include the Violence Risk Appraisal Guide (VRAG), the Static-99 (for sex offenders), the MSOST–R (for sex offenders), the Spousal Assault Risk Assessment (SARA), and the Domestic Violence Risk Appraisal Guide (DVRAG).

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