D. Misuse of Classification Information
Effective use of risk instruments requires users to exercise faith in the overall risk score rather than yield to the influence of explicit descriptions of the offender’s prior criminal activities gleaned while carrying out the assessment interview. However, it can be difficult for classification personnel to ignore unsavory features of an offender’s criminal or social history, even when the outcome of the risk assessment instrument indicates that the client is a low risk. Research indicates that these biases are common in risk decision making (see, e.g., Hilton, Harris, Rawson, & Beach, 2005), and so practitioners must make an overt choice to side with the recommendations indicated by the assessment results.
Overclassification refers to the channeling of relatively low-risk offenders to unnecessarily secure supervision levels or institutional placements. Overclassification can result from failure to administer reliable and valid risk assessment tools, but also from failure to base supervision decision making on the results of an instrument when a good one is administered. Overclassification has serious consequences, namely, increased risk by overclassified offenders. Overclassified offenders experience a greater likelihood of becoming higher-risk offenders for various reasons, not the least of which may be increased exposure to other true high-risk offenders and diminished opportunities, such as employment, as liberties are curtailed (Clements, 1982).
Agencies promote overclassification when their risk assessment instruments include items that lack predictive validity. The decision to rely solely on statistically justified assessment items is not always easy for an agency to accept when omitted factors exhibit strong face validity with the outcome in question. Items have face validity if it seems they should affect the behavior being predicted. For example, while it would appear that a history of past escapes and severity of current offense exert an influence on a prison inmate’s risk of institutional misconduct, in fact, these characteristics are not valid predictors and including them will degrade the instrument’s predictions of inmate behavior (Austin, 2003).
What happens when valid and reliable offender classification instruments are not used? Without classification, a greater number of mistakes are made in efforts to identify true high-risk offenders. There is an increased cost of corrections. Corrections becomes more expensive when decision makers erroneously believe they need additional highsecurity prisons in the wake of overclassification of low-risk offenders, and when underclassified higher-risk offenders are mistakenly assigned to community supervision or other minimally secure settings.
Overclassification may be difficult to avoid with respect to prisons and jails. For example, the majority of jails in use today contain mainly maximum-security housing, which undermines meaningful custody classification. In many jails, inmate segregation according to gender, age (juvenile or adult), and detention status (sentenced or unsentenced) takes precedence over classification according to risk of violence or need for mental health care. As a result, jail administrators are unable to take advantage of many gains in offender classification that are available to other corrections agencies (Austin, 1998; Brennan & Austin, 1997).