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The Promise (and Perils) of Predicting Sex Crimes

September 2014 National:

Attorney-General Eric Holder’s August 1 speech criticizing the use of risk assessment in sentencing decisions may not lever the issue to the top of the policy agenda. But a new paper could revive the debate about the effectiveness of risk tools in evaluating the chances of recidivism among those convicted of sex crimes.

A forthcoming article in the Arizona State Law Journal argues that state criminal justice systems which use risk assessment tools may overestimate sex offenders’ likelihood of committing another crime. That message may complicate the efforts of those who advocate reform of sex offender policies. A key goal of reformers is to have states use actuarial risk assessments to classify offenders, instead of basing risk levels on their crime of conviction, as required by the 2006 federal Adam Walsh Act.

“Actuarial” risk assessments are designed to let state criminal justice systems evaluate risk as car insurance companies do. A list of factors that correlate with recidivism is used to group offenders into categories. Offenders with factors that correlate with higher reoffense rates are judged at greater risk; those with fewer factors are put in a lower tier.

Such assessments are increasingly used in release decisions for all types of offenders. A 2008 survey by the Association of Paroling Authorities International found that 32 out of 37 responding states used risk assessment tools to help determine conditions of parole or probation.

For those convicted of sex crimes, the stakes in risk assessment are high. Those identified as likely to commit a new offense appear on public state sex offender registries. In many states and cities, they’re also banned from living near schools, parks, or daycares.

Research shows that actuarial risk assessments perform better than what they replaced—relying on experts to use their experience to make unstructured clinical judgments. Studies done in the late 1990s concluded that professionals don’t perform much better than chance in predicting recidivism.

But criminal law professor Melissa Hamilton, the Law Journal article’s author, sees flaws in the leading actuarial instruments. These instruments, she writes, often look only at historical, or “static,” factors in an offender’s background, particularly their number and type of offenses.

Moreover, they don’t take into account more recent “dynamic” factors that might increase an offender’s chances of staying clear of future crime—success in a treatment program, abstention from alcohol and drugs, or a strong support network, for example.

At least two previous studies also concluded that the inability of static instruments to take into account changes in offenders’ lives weakened their validity, according to a December 2012 meta-analysis of studies on sex offender risk assessment tools in the journal Clinical Psychology Review.

(The Static-99 is the most popular static risk tool. The lead developer was unavailable to respond to requests for comment, and a member of the Static-99 Clearinghouse advisory board told The Crime Report that the board also couldn’t comment.)

Another Hamilton criticism focuses on the way assessment tools are used, rather than on the tools themselves. Some states give evaluators the option of “overriding” a tool’s score if their professional judgment indicates that the offender should have been scored higher. Hamilton, a former corrections and police officer, told The Crime Report that evaluators are more likely to throw out low rather than high scores, in part because of widely held assumptions that all sex offenders are at high risk to recidivate. ..Continued.. by Steve Yoder

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