Fast Facts About Risk Assessment

Fact 1: Risk assessment is an important process for many areas relating to sex offenders. 

Risk assessments take place in both the clinical (treatment) area as well as the forensic (judicial) realm. Accurately assessing risk is critical in making decisions related to the treatment and management of individuals who have sexually offended, such as the goals of sex offender treatment and management; criminal sentencing, probation, and parole decisions; and community notification.

Fact 2: Risk assessment is the process of identifying the probability or likelihood of future dangerousness or harm.

Risk assessment focuses on predicting the likelihood that someone with a known history of sexual offending will commit another sexual offense. Because it is practically and scientifically impossible to predict any future event with 100% accuracy, a risk assessment always involves some degree of uncertainty. The task of individuals conducting a risk assessment is to strike a scientific and ethical balance between appropriately managing offenders and optimizing public safety.

Fact 3: Courts support the value of risk assessments.

Many courts rely on risk assessments by trained professionals to provide meaningful opinions about the relative risk of individuals who have been convicted of a sexual crime to recidivate. Individuals who conduct assessments have many tools and tests at their disposal for evaluating someone's risk to sexually reoffend, and must determine which are the most appropriate to use for any given assessment. For this reason, it is important that all assessments be conducted by individuals who have received training in these techniques and who stay abreast of the most current research into assessment methods.

Fact 4: There are a number of ways of offering meaningful risk assessments of future sex offense recidivism.

  • First, estimated base rates (for a particular follow-up period) can be used to establish a benchmark for the likelihood of general classes of sex offenders such as rapists or child molesters.
  • Second, research has identified risk factors that can be used to identify those sex offenders at a higher risk to reoffend.
  • Third, several researchers have studied particular combinations of risk factors which, in designated combinations, are associated with different levels of risk for future sex offending. These combinations are used as “actuarial tools” and are similar to actuarial tables used by insurance companies to determine relative risk.
  • Fourth, specially trained experts are able calculate appropriate actuarial tools for particular offenders and offer the established cutoffs on these tools to the courts for consideration.
  • Fifth, a risk assessment may consider aspects of an offender that might result in a change in their relative risk (e.g., sex offender treatment completion, advanced age) or other characteristics specific to an individual that affect their risk for reoffending, but it must be recognized that, unless these factors have been incorporated into empirically validated actuarial tools, the weights these factors contribute are uncertain and their addition may reduce accuracy. As much as possible, all factors being considered in a risk assessment must be validated actuarial tools.

The following citations reflect research, publications, and presentations by current ATSA members.

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