How Can Human Service Agencies Use Risk Responsibly?

How Can Human Service Agencies Use Risk Responsibly?

June 21, 2016 | Chris Scharenbroch


A risk assessment is a data-based tool that classifies people into groups based on the likelihood of a specific outcome happening in the future (for example, being arrested for a crime). The kinds of information that often help construct a risk tool are things like prior system involvement, social attachments, peer relationships, and personal characteristics. These types of items are chosen because they are the most useful in telling us how likely a future outcome is to happen.

It is true the data that are most statistically related, and the data on the outcome, are often also markers and derivatives of established inequities in our systems. Structural racism and institutional bias, and the many policies and practices that have resulted from them over generations, are reflected in the data we use to create risk assessments.

Given these circumstances, it is conscientious and necessary to question how a risk assessment can be used appropriately. The answer rests in how human service agencies use the results. 

A valid risk assessment presents a clear picture of which groups of people are more or less likely to experience subsequent outcomes. By defining a high-risk group, agencies have identified the people on whom they may focus their resources.  

In this context, risk assessment should be part of positive solutions. For example, in juvenile justice settings that are moving away from punitive approaches toward positive youth development approaches, risk assessment highlights prevention opportunities. Rather than focus on punishment or sanctioning, positive youth development approaches encourage connections with community, strong relationships with role models, education and employment growth, and positive social outlets. Agencies can use the risk assessment to direct these kinds of interventions to the young people that need them most. In this context, a young person in the high-risk group would receive resources to build and sustain these supports in his or her life.

Risk assessment is problematic when it is used to direct punishment or other negative interventions. In a punitive system, a designation of “high risk” does not mean a positive outcome for an individual. For example, in adult corrections sentencing, being high risk can mean more punishment, longer incarceration, and often fewer civil liberties.

The distinction made here gets to the very heart and mission of a human services system. It asks the question, is the goal of the system to prevent crime and keep communities safe by providing resources and rehabilitation services, or is it to seek and distribute punishment?

Different human services systems, in our country in 2016, have different missions. Adult corrections as we know it is a system designed to uphold the law and distribute punishment. The system is designed to focus less on the prevention opportunity and more on punitive response. Contrast that with the mission of juvenile justice agencies—for example, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP):

OJJDP provides national leadership, coordination, and resources to prevent and respond to juvenile delinquency and victimization. OJJDP supports states and communities in their efforts to develop and implement effective and coordinated prevention and intervention programs and to improve the juvenile justice system so that it protects public safety, holds justice-involved youth appropriately accountable, and provides treatment and rehabilitative services tailored to the needs of juveniles and their families.

This mission focuses on prevention and intervention programs, treatment and services, and the needs of young people and their families, without letting go of the concept of accountability. It is quite different from the adult model.

If we know that risk assessments are created and validated against data that are reflective of inequitable socioeconomic factors, policies and institutional racism, we have to ask ourselves if it is fair to use results for anything other than a positive, rehabilitative agency response. Adult sentencing is a response to unlawful behavior. The response is punishment, not rehabilitation. For this reason, Evident Change does not advocate the use of risk assessment in adult corrections sentencing. 

If the agency response is positive, treatment-oriented, and rehabilitative, risk assessment can serve a fundamentally different function. Instead of propagating system bias, a risk assessment instead highlights those who might benefit most from a prevention opportunity.   

Risk assessment is a powerful tool. It has been shown time and time again to be accurate in doing exactly what it purports to do: identify those who are most likely return to a system. This is critical information for an agency to have. But with this knowledge comes the responsibility of understanding exactly how the assessment works. If we acknowledge that the risk assessment is a reflection of societal issues, and not an indictment of an individual, the appropriate response becomes clear.