A Historical Overview of the Risk Assessment Tools utilised in the Criminal Justice System.

A Historical Overview of the Risk Assessment Tools utilised in the Criminal Justice System.

The criminal justice system uses a range of risk assessment tools to identify the level of risk and treatment targets for offenders. Bonta (1996) describes that there has been three generations of risk assessment tools used to identify the level of risk for violent and sexual offenders. The first generation was the unstructured professional opinion. The second generation involved actuarial risk scales based on static factors and the third generation of risk assessment tools involved assessments of ‘criminogenic needs’ or dynamic risk. This blog will provide a brief overview and explanation of tools and strengths and limitations of each assessment tool.

Unstructured clinical approach

The first generation of risk assessment took place over twenty years ago which was the unstructured clinical approach to assessing risk (Harris and Hanson 2010). The unstructured clinical approach to risk assessment is based on a guess or hunch about the level of risk a person may pose. There are strengths to using this approach such as flexibility and not being bound by a specific framework. The limitations are that there is no clear evidence that decisions are consistent for all professionals. This approach was noticeable as the assessor makes judgements based on individual case analysis, case conference, or professional experience, without considering relevant risk factors, method for combining them, or applicable theory, to prioritise the relative importance of the data (Craig, Beech, & Harkins, 2009).

Actuarial Risk Assessment Tool

The second generation of risk assessment was that of the actuarial risk assessment tool. The actuarial assessment as Grove &Meehl (1996) explains is an objective evaluation of factors empirically related to recidivism. The actuarial risk assessment was developed due to there being evidence that unstructured clinical judgements generally offered poor predictive validity compared to more structured approaches. Meehl (1954) defined actuarial predictions as having two features: they use an explicit method of combining the information and that information is linked to a probability figure on the basis of empirically determined relative frequencies. Actuarial predictions then allow an offender to be categorised in terms of level of risk – low, medium, and high. This classification approach works by having a known sample of offenders with specific background factors that correlate with reoffending. These are then used to estimate whether a new offender is likely to offend or not. The benefit of using this tool is that evaluators ultimately make decisions regarding risk according to fixed and explicit rules (Bickley & Beech, 2001). However the limitations are each offender is associated with the research findings based on a group of offenders and their behaviour. As a result, the prediction is unable to handle individual patterns well (Bickley & Beech, 2001). These measures cannot address the reasons for the behaviours they attempt to predict. They indicate associations, rather than tell us about causation (Taylor & Quayle, 2003).


The Static-99 is the most commonly employed actuarial risk measures by forensic professionals for use with adult male sexual offenders, due to its reliability and validity (Jackson & Hess, 2007). The Static-99 is an actuarial risk assessment tool that can be conducted by doing a file review which takes into account the historical overview of an offender and considers the following areas such as age, long term relationships and previous convictions. The Static-99 consists of 10 items and produces estimates of future risk based on a number of risk factors present in any one individual. The Static-99 considers the static or historical risk factors of an offender, which are not changeable.

Identifying the ‘Criminogenic Needs’ or Dynamic Risk Factors

The third generation of risk assessment is identifying the ‘criminogenic needs’ or dynamic risk. The Stable-2007 and Acute-2007 is a risk assessment tool utilised by forensic professionals that identifies the dynamic and acute risk of adult male sexual offenders and can assess and track their process in treatment. The benefits of using this tool is that it provides assessors with clear instructions of how to interpret the information however, the limitations are there has been limited research conducted to validate the effectiveness of using this tool. The STABLE-2007 and the ACUTE-2007 are specialized tools designed to assess and track changes in risk status over time by assessing changeable “dynamic” risk factors. “Stable” dynamic risk factors are personal skill deficits, predilections, and learned behaviours that correlate with sexual recidivism but that can be changed through a process of “effortful intervention”. The STABLE-2007 assess 13 dynamic risk factors which include significant social influences, capacity for relationship stability, emotional identification with children, hostility towards women, general social rejection, lack of concern for others, impulsivity, poor problem solving skills, negative emotionality, sexual preoccupation, using sex as coping, deviant sexual preference and cooperation with supervision (Casey, Day, Vess and Ward, 2013). Hanson, et al. (2007) explains that the “Acute” risk factors are highly transient conditions that would only last hours or days. These factors are rapidly changing environmental and intrapersonal stresses, conditions, or events that have been shown by previous research to be related to imminent sexual re-offence.

Structure Professional Judgment

The Structure Professional Judgment is a widely used, non-actuarial approach to violence and sexual risk assessment. There are a number of benefits of using a structured professional judgement risk assessment tool such it provides a clinically meaningful assessment of an individual and suggestions treatment targets. However the limitation of using this approach is that it is time consuming and can lead to interview bias. The Structure Professional Judgement was designed to assist the process of risk assessment and management by requiring evaluators to consider, at a minimum, a set of risk factors deemed important in the scientific and professional literatures (Hart, Kropp, & Laws, 2003).

Risk of Sexual Violence Protocol (RSVP)

The Risk of Sexual Violence Protocol (RSVP) is a Structure Professional Judgment tool that provides guidelines concerning both the procedure and content of risk assessments. The RSVP is a set of such guidelines that inform clinical and forensic decision-making relating to placement, treatment or management of an individual (Boer, Hart, Kropp& Webster, (1997). The RSVP specifies how the risk assessment should be conducted, as well as which risk factors should be assessed, but it does not employ actuarial or statistical methods to support this decision-making. It identifies both static and dynamic risk factors based on literature review and consultation with clinicians and academics, and includes areas broadly categorised as: sexual offences, psychosocial adjustment, future plans, and other consideration (Craig, Browne & Beech, 2008).

Violence Risk Scale Assessment

The Violence Risk Scale (VRS) is a comprehensive actuarial instrument that covers the majority of the best-established predictors of violence. According to Gordon and Wong (2000) actuarial instruments involve a mechanical combination of risk factors that place an individual offender into a risk category that can be compared to that of the average violent offender. Gordon and Wong (2000) indicated that the intensity of risk management efforts should be matched to this relative level of risk. The VRS includes both static (historical) and dynamic (changeable) risk factors. As such, it acknowledges the fluctuating nature of risk and the dynamic factors can also serve as intervention and management targets. The VRS has been validated in correctional samples and total scores on the instrument have been found to have a moderate-to-high relationship with subsequent violence.

The Spousal Assault Risk Assessment (SARA)

is a set of structured professional guidelines developed by Kropp, Hart, Webster, and Eaves (1995) which is designed specifically for assessing the risk of spousal violence. The SARA covers four domains of risk factors: criminal history, psychosocial adjustment, spousal assault history, and current offence. The SARA provides two numerical estimates to assist evaluators in making their final risk judgment. One is based on the number of risk actors in which there is “definite” evidence, while the other is based on the combined number of risk factors with definite or partial evidence.

The Historical, Clinical, Risk Management-20 (HCR-20)

The HCR-20 is a set of structured professional guidelines that covers three domains of risk factors related to general violence: historical (past), clinical (present), and risk management (future). The HCR-20 according to Douglas, Hart, Webster, Belfrage, Guy and Wilson (2015) has been extensively validated in studies throughout the world and has been found to be among the most accurate assessment methods for assessing risk for violence. Indeed, more than 150 empirical studies have been conducted in a range of forensic psychiatric, correctional, and civil psychiatric settings. It has been validated for use with both males and females, and in inpatient and outpatient settings. Structured judgments made on the basis of the HCR-20 results have been found to have at least a moderate-to-large, and very often a large, relationship with subsequent violence.

Tanya Jordan is an experienced Forensic Social Worker and an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker with T n J’s Consulting and Support Services.


Reference List

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Bonta, J. (1996). Risk-needs assessment and treatment.In A. T Harland (Ed.), Choosing correctional options that work: Defining the demand and evaluating the supply (pp.18-32). Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage.

Boer, D. P., Hart, S. D., Kropp, P.R., & Webster, C. D. (1997). Manual for the Sexual Violence Risk-20: Professional guidelines for assessing risk of sexual violence. Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada: Institute against FamilyViolence and the Mental Health, Law and Policy Institute, Simon Fraser University.

Casey, S., Day, A., Vess,J., & Ward, T. (2013). Foundations of Offender Rehabilitation Routledge Milton Park, Abingdon,Oxon, OX14 4RN 119-120

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Kropp, P.R, Hart, S. D, Webster, C.D and Eaves, D (1995) Spousal Assault Risk Assessment Guide

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Taylor, M. & Quayle, E. (2003). Child Pornography: An Internet Crime. Hove: Brunner-Routledge.

Wong, S and Gordon, A (2000) Violence Risk Scale Manual