Fast Facts About Risk Assessment

Fact 1: Risk assessment is an important process for many areas relating to sex offenders. It takes place in both the clinical (or treatment) area as well as the forensic (or judicial) realm.

  • Accurately assessing risk is critical in making decisions related to sex offenders such as:
    • the goals of sex offender treatment and management;
    • criminal sentencing, probation, and parole decisions;
    • community notification; and
    • civil commitment for extended treatment of select sex offenders.

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

  • Risk assessment is concerned with predicting the degree of possibility of a sexual reoffense for someone with a known history of sex offending.
  • It is practically and scientifically impossible to predict any future event with 100% certainty. Consequently, a risk assessment will always involve some degree of uncertainty about the “truth” of the actual prediction.
  • The task of risk assessment is to strike a scientific and ethical balance among the identification of offenders, while optimizing public safety.

Fact 3: Courts have long supported the value of risk assessments from mental health professionals for predicting future dangerousness.

  • Trained professionals using today’s significant and growing body of scientific knowledge are able to offer meaningful opinions about the relative risk of future dangerousness.
  • Unstructured clinical judgment and predictions for sexual reoffending based on “experience” are less accurate than research- and data-based determinations.

Fact 4: Important limitations must be kept in mind when considering available methods of risk assessment for future sex offending. For instance:

  • The vast majority of actual sex offenses committed against youth and adults go unreported and undetected. Consequently, because all methods of assessing the risk of future sex offenses rely on re-arrests and reconvictions, the assessment may produce substantial underestimates of relative risk.
  • A prediction is limited by the length of time identified sex offenders can and have been followed for study.
  • The likelihood of a particular sex offender reoffending cannot be accurately predicted. Rather, the field is limited to predicting the likelihood that a sex offender with particular characteristics may reoffend.
  • Sex offenders are a very heterogeneous group, which increases the complexity of the assessment process.

Fact 5: 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 typically are known 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 future dangerousness, 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.