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Balanced decision-making in forensic risk assessment
  • Nov 17, 2020
  • Latest News

Matthew Gobbett, Registered & Chartered Forensic Psychologist
BSc (Hons), PG Dip, C.Psychol

Risk assessment is the critical tool for making decisions about perpetrators of crime within court, parole and tribunal settings. It is also utilised within many secure and community services to decide on the placement, needs and resources required for risk-management.  It is a complex process that can have far-reaching consequences for the individual assessed, for example, determining their liberty, or whether they can live with their family.  It can also have significant implications for the public, as a misjudged risk assessment can lead to future harm and victimisation.

The risk assessment process has traditionally focussed upon the identification of risk factors; those features of a perpetrator’s history or functioning that have been shown through research to be indicators of increased future risk. For example, historical (static) factors such as the number of prior convictions, age, and level of harm caused have been demonstrated to increase the likelihood of further offending. Risk factors can also incorporate aspects of the perpetrator’s functioning or lifestyle that increase the likelihood that they will commit a future offence. These are often considered dynamic factors, as they are changeable.  They include characteristics such as mental health diagnosis, attitudes and peer group.

Risk assessment is not a precise process, but the extensive scientific study of what causes criminal offences has helped develop risk assessment tools that guide judgement and improve accuracy.  They guide the assessor to look for known risk factors.  One such example is the Historical Clinical Risk-Management-20 (HCR-20), which guides the assessment of 20 risk factors commonly associated with risk of future violence.  However, one of the criticisms of the modern risk assessment process is that it has traditionally only focussed on identifying risks, problems and disorders.  

Within Psychology, the study of heuristics, the cognitive ‘short-cuts’ and assumptions we make when trying to solve a problem, tell us that only focussing on the risks, problems and disorders can skew our judgement.  A negative bias, which can shape our interactions and overall evaluation of the person we are assessing can be created.  A little like Darth Vader in the first Star Wars movie, we only see the scary suit, uncaring attitude and aggressive behaviour.  By the end of the movie, the information we are presented with helps us form the picture of an evil man. However, it is only in later movies, when presented with different information about his past that our assessment of Darth Vader changes.  

Referring back to the risk assessment process, if we only seek and collate negative behaviours about a person, we have formed biased opinions about their behaviour and future risk.  Most human beings have negative aspects of their life and functioning that they would prefer not to reveal to others.  Now imagine that the person you were talking to was only interested in finding out about these.

A similar bias that can impact upon judgement within risk assessment is the confirmation bias in human thinking.  Research into this concept has revealed how we can search for, interpret and favour information that confirms or strengthens our judgement.  Within the risk assessment process, if we go in search of the risks, problems and disorders, we may be more likely to find them.  Some practitioners argue that referring to the assessment process as ‘risk assessment’ instantly creates a confirmation bias where the assessor needs to look for (and find) risk.

The above biases in human thinking can create what is sometimes referred to as a ‘false positive’ in risk assessment.  A false positive involves viewing a person as riskier than they may be.  Within the Criminal Justice System, this can lead to people being detained in secure settings for longer, receiving more stringent restrictions, or fewer privileges.

In more recent years, some risk assessors have developed a greater appreciation for protective factors.  These are characteristics that can protect against future re-offending.  For example, having a supportive family is often identified as a decisive protective factor.  Stable accommodation is another, as is having a job and leisure interests.  Protective factors not only mediate against the risk of re-offending but help the perpetrator to build a more positive and successful future.

Much like the scientific research into risk factors, there is a growing body of knowledge indicating which protective factors are most helpful at preventing further offending.  Parallel to the development of tools to assess risk, we now have tools such as the Structured Assessment of Protective Factors (SAPROF) to help us assess protective factors.  These tools, alongside our developing knowledge of protective factors, allow for a more balanced assessment of risk and overcome some of the biases that skew the judgement of risk.

Many practitioners now incorporate protective factors into the assessment process.  However, as the appreciation of them is relatively new, they can sometimes be undervalued.  It is not uncommon to read a risk-assessment report that attributes 90% of content identifying and discussing risk factors, and 10% discussing protective factors. They are sometimes viewed as a token gesture.

The factors that are relevant to protect against risk for one person will not be the same for another.  One person may respond well to having a job; for another, it may be less important for their future success.  One person may need close support from a family, whilst another is entirely happy living a more independent lifestyle.  Assessors not only need to attribute space within the assessment process to consider protective factors, but also the time and energy to explore the person’s goals, values and strengths. All of which will help create a picture of the factors that will help them lead a positive future life.  Only with this balanced appreciation of risk and protection can we make sound judgements about the likelihood of offending.

Forensic Psychology Consultancy (FP Consultancy) is an independent practice of Psychologists with expertise in working with perpetrators of crime, victims and those at risk. Services are offered to legal representatives, criminal justice, family court, social and health agencies. We can help to understand behaviour by applying the most up-to-date and evidence-based psychological theories and methods. Our aim is to deliver this in a professional and accessible manner.