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

6. Operational and Research Needs

6. Operational and Research Needs

The following recommendations are based on our review of the existing literature and reported provincial practices and pertain to operational concerns and further research associated with the continued use of risk/need assessment tools. Given that the trend towards risk/need assessments is likely to persist and expand, decision makers need to be sensitive to the strengths and limitations of this new technology as well as the associated legal and ethical concerns.

6.1 Validity and reliability of the tools

Additional validation research ought to be undertaken on the tools used in each jurisdiction. This research ought to be conducted by independent researchers with no vested interest in the continued use of these tools.

  1. Research needs to address various types of validity (construct and predictive) and evaluate not only the validity and reliability of particular tools but also the specific items (risk/needs criteria) included in the tools and their operationalization.
  2. Many of the tools used were developed and tested on an adult male population. The generalizability of this research to youth and subgroups of youth, most notably Aboriginal, Black, and female youth, requires considerably more investigation. This research should also examine the distinctness of the criteria included in risk scales; in other words, examine whether these criteria are a reflection of youth in general or specific to youth in conflict with the law.
  3. Each region adopting these tools should establish normative data and determine whether cut-off scores and levels require adjusting.
  4. Research needs to examine whether one risk/need assessment can be validly and reliably used to make qualitatively different decisions at various stages within the youth criminal justice system (i.e., probation, open and closed custody).

6.2 Potential direct and systemic forms of discrimination

Future research must carefully scrutinize risk/needs assessments for potential discriminatory effects on marginalized segments of the population. Many of the criminogenic risk/need indicators are associated with socio-economic marginalization and, as such, certain minority groups may be treated more punitively. Moreover, the failure to consider the differences between subgroups of youth may result in direct and systemic forms of discrimination.

  1. Specific research ought to be undertaken to determine whether risk and need differ for Aboriginal, female, and lower socio-economic status youth. Such research ought to include a comprehensive review of the appropriate literature on social class and on female and Aboriginal youth. Interviews with practitioners should be conducted to determine specific areas of concern.
  2. A systematic review of current practices and reports should occur to determine how and if the gender, socio-economic status, and ethno-cultural specific needs of these groups are being considered in the preparation of PSRs, in the assessments of risk and need by probation officers, and in post-sentences in terms of access to community resources. Specific risk/need assessment tools ought to be examined to determine if the criteria used in the tools to establish levels of risk and need adequately capture the situation of ethno-cultural and Aboriginal youth.
  3. There is an absence of clear criteria and guidelines pertaining to special groups in the tools' user manuals and in jurisdictional policy. Where appropriate, specific guidelines and training need to be developed.

6.3 Areas for intervention

A major component of risk and needs assessment is to match and identify risk/need areas that are amenable to intervention.

Future research must begin to examine the interrelation between risk/need scores and case management decisions. More specifically, studies need to pay attention to the impact of risk/need scores on intervention decisions, institutional and release practices, resource allocation, and program development. As practitioners become more efficient at identifying and assessing these needs, the demand for services to address these needs is likely to increase. Also, the extent to which risk/need scores shift over time needs to be explored.

6.4 Reintegration

Given new provisions on custody and reintegration, future research ought to explore the role that risk/need assessments play in determining release from custody, reintegration, and the imposition of conditions and revocations of release.

6.5 Legal research

Legal research ought to be conducted to determine how the use of risk assessments relates to case law and other legal and due process concerns. Specific consideration may be given to equity issues and to recent decisions impacting on women and Aboriginal offenders.

6.6 Pre-sentence reports

Current research suggests that the PSR is quite influential in judicial determinations of sentence. How information about risk and need is presented in reports, the judge's reliance on this information, and rates of concordance between the report and the sentence ought to be explored. If claims about the level of risk are made based on an assessment conducted using a risk/need instrument, the use of this instrument ought to be clearly evident and substantiated.

6.7 Inform key stakeholders

Defence counsel, Crown attorneys, and the judiciary ought to be informed of the strengths and limitations of these tools, the information contained in the tools, and on how to interpret the results generated by these assessments. It is important to provide them with the skills and knowledge to assess claims pertaining to risk and need in court documents.

6.8 Training

The training of youth justice practitioners on risk/needs assessments (where used) and how to interpret criteria and results is critical. Gaps between the purpose of the tools and its use in practice, and the interpretation of criteria contained in the tool are evident. Perhaps more significant is that clear direction needs to be given to practitioners on when to use and when not to use these tools. Training needs to go beyond the content of the YCJA to include direction about the intent and purposes of the Act relative to risk and need assessments. Many practitioners understand things will change but do not know how and have not thought about risk/need assessments from this standpoint. Rather, these assessments are seen as part of case management and not within the broader framework of the YCJA.

6.9 Guidelines

Clear guidelines ought to be developed on the use of such tools at various decision-making points. Serious consideration to the long-term impact of the use of such tools at each decision-making stage in the youth justice system and the legal and due process restrictions related to the decision (i.e., pre-trial detentions) ought to occur prior to the development of such guidelines.

6.10 Audit

Each region adopting a risk/need assessment instrument should develop and implement systematic auditing procedures. Proper auditing is necessary to ensure that information is collected, reviewed, and available for evaluation of assessments and to ensure quality control, accuracy, consistency, and the possibility of overrides. It is recommended that an auditing body be established to oversee this process in each region. The practice of requiring supervisors to review assessments is deemed insufficient to ensure quality control.

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