Youth Risk/Need Assessment: An Overview of Issues and Practices


The authors of the report would like to acknowledge the efforts and assistance of Linn Clark our project administer and the research assistance of Tanya Jewell, Zachary Levinsky, Savino Mazzuocco and Sasmita Rajaratnam .

Executive Summary

The purpose of this study was to review and critique the concepts of risk and need as they relate to assessments of youth within the Canadian criminal justice system and to identify existing risk/need assessment tools currently used with young offenders. Each provincial/territorial government was contacted in order to identify the central risk/need assessment instruments used with young offenders, and interviews were conducted to determine the purpose and practice of risk/need assessments at various key decision-making stages of the criminal justice system. Particular attention is paid to why certain tools were chosen and attempts are made to document research conducted in the provinces and territories. The report concludes with recommendations on the use of risk/need assessment in light of the new Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA). An in-depth analysis of the reliability and validity of the scales was not possible because the raw data upon which they are based, as well as the data collected by jurisdictions for validation, were not available to researchers for secondary analysis. Such a task, while valuable, is a major undertaking and beyond the scope of the present project.

We conducted 71 semi-structured, open-ended interviews in all provinces and territories, with the exception of Quebec. The Department of Justice provided initial contact names for each of the jurisdictions. These individuals were identified as people who would assist us in accessing further information and contacts. All contacts were sent an email briefly describing the research and requesting the names of individuals in research/policy, Crown's offices, probation, and open- and secure-custody facilities who would be willing to be interviewed for this project. In some cases, we received email responses that directed us to other individuals within the system; in cases where we did not receive a response we followed up by telephone and subsequent emails. From some jurisdictional contacts we were able to obtain copies of risk/need assessment tools and training manuals. Documentation, including our ethics approval through the University of Toronto, was sent to jurisdictions requiring their own research approval.

Our review of the risk/need assessment tools used on youth and supporting research (if existing) raised a number of methodological concerns. A number of questions about the reliability and validity of currently used tools remain, particularly in terms of gender and non-white youth. In general, practitioners felt the increased use of risk/need instruments in the youth justice system would enhance case management, increase efficiency and result in more consistent and defensible decisions. The concerns revealed include: a tendency to merge risk and need, the potential for gender, racial or cultural disparity, inconsistency in practitioners interpretations and understandings of risk/need assessment scores, insufficient training, an absence of uniform audits, inconsistent use of over-rides, and concern about the availability of community resources needed to adequately manage risks and needs of youth. The report contains recommendations relevant to each of the abovementioned concerns.

In terms of the YCJA, we suggest that the logic of risk/need assessments contradicts one of the main YCJA principles where in "young persons are to be held accountable through interventions that are fair and in proportion to the seriousness of the offence". Risk/need scores are not a measure of the seriousness of an offence, nor do they predict potential for future serious offences, nor is future crime relevant to proportionality. The use of risk/need assessments to facilitate decisions under the YCJA needs to be carefully reviewed and monitored.

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