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
- civil commitment for extended treatment of select sex offenders.
Risk assessment (RA) is the process of identifying the probability or likelihood of future dangerousness or harm, such as a sexual offense.
RA is concerned with predicting the degree of possibility of a sexual re-offense 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.
Courts have long supported the value of attending to risk assessments from mental health professionals for predicting future dangerousness. However, for many years, research indicated that such predictions were often inaccurate.
- Unstructured clinical judgment (e.g. that based on “experience”) was and continues to be found inaccurate.
- In the last ten years, the relative accuracy of risk assessments has improved substantially, particularly as they pertain to sexual re-offending.
- A significant body of scientific knowledge and professional practices has developed that has greatly improved the ability of trained professionals to offer meaningful opinions about the relative risk of future dangerousness.
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, all methods of assessing the risk of future sex offenses rely on re-arrests and reconvictions and produce substantial underestimates of relative risk.
- A prediction is limited by the length of time that identified sex offenders can and have been followed for study.
- Sex offenders of various types are a very heterogeneous group.
- The likelihood of a particular sex offender re-offending cannot be accurately predicted; rather, the field is limited to predicting the likelihood that a sex offender with particular characteristics may re-offend.
Currently, there 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 re-offend.
- 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 are typically known as “actuarial tools” and are similar to actuarial tables utilized 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.
- A risk assessment may consider both 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 unless these factors have been incorporated into empirically validated actuarial tools, the weights that these factors contribute are uncertain and their addition may reduce accuracy. Across a variety of situations, trained professionals can now offer informed risk assessments of the likelihood of future sexual offending for a variety of sex offenders.