Section 3: Assessment
2 Hours

Lecture Topic TOPIC: ASSESSMENT

Part V: Risk Assessment

General Issues

Risk assessments will probably come into play at different phases of your work with juvenile sex offenders. And as you’ve seen in this section already, they are generally considered to be an important piece of both the pre–sentence/pre–disposition report and the psychosexual evaluation. So let’s spend some time talking in more detail about risk assessment.

As you are probably well aware, risk assessments have become fairly influential in the criminal and juvenile justice arenas.

Use SlideUse Slide #41: Risk Assessment

Because research has shown that higher risk offenders benefit more from higher intensity services than do lower risk offenders,68 validated risk assessments can be used to make decisions about which individuals should receive which level of services. As a result, risk assessments can ensure that our resources—such as limited residential treatment beds or more costly supervision strategies—are utilized more efficiently. In other words, we are better able to reserve intensive or costly resources for those youth who need and will benefit most from them.

In addition, because risk assessments are generally designed to be standardized and objective measures for use by a range of practitioners, they can help take away some of the “guess work,” subjectivity, and inconsistencies that can occur when different professionals are charged with making decisions based in part on risk. Put simply, with a standardized risk assessment tool, everyone reviews the same factors and uses the same criteria to guide decisions.

Common Risk Assessment Uses

Use SlideUse Slide #42: Common Uses

Depending upon the tools and the purposes, risk assessments can be used with juvenile sex offenders and other youth at several points in the juvenile justice process.

Risk Assessment for General Delinquency or Youth Violence

General Risk Factors

Broadly speaking, within the juvenile justice field, risk assessment is not a particularly new area of focus. Indeed, over the past few decades, researchers have conducted numerous follow–up studies of youth who have been involved in delinquent or criminal behavior in an attempt to determine how many of these youth continued to have problems with the law and to discern the kinds of factors that may be linked to increased risk of problem behavior in the future.69

Unfortunately, the observed recidivism rate—or base rate—for juvenile delinquents is fairly high.70 While that may not be great news, there is something positive that comes from relatively high base rates. It is easier to identify the specific factors associated with recidivism, because researchers are able to study more closely those large numbers of youth who have continued with delinquent or criminal behaviors and figure out what they had in common.

Use SlideUse Slide #43: Risk Factors: General Delinquency or Youth Violence

Researchers have found that among the factors related to general delinquent or violent recidivism are the youth’s age at time of the first referral to the juvenile court, the number of prior referrals or prior adjudications the youth has had, the type of offense for which the youth is currently charged, and whether or not the youth has a history of violence.71 And many of you are probably familiar with the research on youth that consistently shows a relationship between affiliating with negative, delinquent peers and future delinquency.72 And as you can see, having a history of running away, abusing drugs or alcohol, being abused or neglected, having problems at school, or living in a chaotic or dysfunctional family environment are linked with a greater likelihood of delinquent or violent behavior.73

Once researchers have identified some of the key factors that relate to recidivism, these risk factors can be translated into specific items on risk assessment tools. So, many of the variables we just reviewed have been used to develop risk assessment tools for youth who are involved in the juvenile justice system. These tools are then “tested” on large samples of juveniles to see how well they work. In other words, the key question is “Do these tools accurately and reliably predict recidivism among large populations of youth?” If the risk assessment instrument is relatively good, most of the youth who were categorized as higher risk will be found to have committed additional delinquent acts. And those who were considered to be “low risk” ideally will be found to have stayed out of trouble.

Sometimes, researchers will uncover that a risk assessment tool incorrectly categorizes large numbers of youth. In other words, many youth were considered high risk, but most of these youth did not commit new crimes. Or conversely, large numbers of youth who were rated as low risk ended up in trouble again. When this occurs, the tool is not one that should be used, because it is not a valid or reliable measure for predicting recidivism risk.

This is—in very simplistic and basic terms—part of the process by which risk assessment tools become empirically validated.

General Risk Assessment Tools

Here are just a few examples of research–based, validated risk assessment tools that predict general juvenile delinquency or non–sexual violence among youth.

Use SlideUse Slide #44: Risk Assessment Tools: General Delinquency

It is very important to note that these risk assessment tools are probably good tools to use with a general population of juvenile delinquents, but may not be good tools to use for predicting sexual recidivism risk with juvenile sex offenders. Some of you may have already sensed this in your work, when the risk determination or score from a more general risk assessment tool did not seem to reflect the apparent level of risk posed by the juvenile sex offender with whom you were working. Again, that’s because even though some factors related to general recidivism are the same as those that predict sexual recidivism, there are several risk factors that are uniquely related to sexual reoffending among youth.77 I’ll highlight some of them in just a moment.

The bottom line is that if we want to get better information about a juvenile’s risk for sexual recidivism, we should use tools specifically designed to assess risk for juvenile sex offenders, not just a general risk assessment tool for youth. Until recently, this was easier said than done.

Challenges with Risk Assessment for Juvenile Sex Offenders

Assessing or predicting risk specifically for juvenile sex offenders has been a challenge for the field for many years. You’ll recall that the observed recidivism rates for general delinquent juveniles is relatively high, which has made it easier to identify specific risk predictors and develop risk assessment tools, right?

Use SlideUse Slide #45: Risk Prediction Challenges for Juvenile Sex Offenders

Well, one of the problems with risk prediction specifically for juvenile sex offenders is that the observed recidivism rates for new sex offenses tends to be quite low—generally only about 10 percent or so78 —which is good news. However, the bad news is that when this “base rate” is low, there are fewer youthful recidivists to study, which means that it will be more difficult to explore the relationship between specific risk factors and sexual recidivism. And in turn, this makes it difficult to develop assessment measures that will predict sexual recidivism with a degree of accuracy with these youth.

Also contributing to the challenge is that the number of well designed follow–up studies of juvenile sex offenders is limited, especially compared to the number of studies involving juvenile delinquents in general—or compared to these types of studies with adult sex offenders. Nonetheless, using the follow–up studies that have been conducted with juvenile sex offenders, researchers have begun to identify the kinds of factors that appear to be related to sexual recidivism among juveniles.79

Factors Associated with Sexual Recidivism Among Juveniles

So, what are some of the factors that appear to be important to consider for juvenile sex offenders?

Use SlideUse Slide #46: Suggested Risk Factors for Juveniles: Sexual Recidivism

The risk factors on the left are variables that are similar to the risk factors that predict general delinquency or non–sexual violent recidivism among youth and that may also be related to sexual recidivism for juveniles. For example, unhealthy family environments, negative peer affiliations, social isolation, and chronic or pervasive antisocial values and behaviors appear to have some relationship with recidivism among youth.80

The variables listed on the right are risk factors that may be uniquely related to sexual recidivism for juveniles,81, such as the presence of deviant sexual arousal, sexual compulsivity, sexual preoccupation, and the targeting of victims who are not known to them. These factors are quite similar to what have been found to be fairly strong predictors of recidivism among adult sex offenders.82

The research also suggests that juvenile sex offenders who are highly impulsive, and whose attitudes are supportive of abusive behaviors, and who display a machismo image or style may be at greater risk for reoffending.83 Finally—and perhaps not surprisingly—research suggests that failing to complete treatment or being terminated unsuccessfully from treatment may be a significant risk factor for juvenile sex offenders.84

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