Risk assessment models in sentencing and corrections

Criminology Research Council grant ; (22/95-6)

The research explores the concept of risk as it relates to the treatment of offenders at various points in the criminal justice system. The inquiry begins with an exploration of the notion of risk in modern societies. It is clear that risk can be regarded as a core organising concept in late the 20th century world. 'Risk society' is concerned with the future, with control and with safety and the significance of risk derives from these preoccupations, not from any objective increase in the hazards and dangers to its citizens. In criminological settings risk has come much closer to centre-stage. Indeed, some writers, such as Feeley and Simon, see 'actuarial justice' as proceeding inexorably and transforming older forms of justice and their concepts. Others such as Garland argue that the field of crime control manifests an uneven and often incoherent mix of policies and practices where the influence of 'actuarial justice' competes not only with older paradigms of proportionality and rehabilitation, but with a morally-charged 'expressive punitiveness' which has considerable political influence.

Risk is then examined in its more specific contexts of sentencing and parole decision-making. It is immediately evident that there are differences in approach to risk at the various points in the criminal justice process. For example, notions of 'risk' and 'dangerousness' have had, and continue to have, a limited but growing role in the legislation governing sentencing whereas Australian courts of appeal have generally reaffirmed the centrality of principles of 'proportionality' or 'just deserts' in sentencing practice particularly as they relate to adult offenders. The research illustrates this through a detailed analysis of recent Western Australian legislation. It is evident that risk may be defined in different ways within the same Act and that at other times it dealt with ambiguously or inconsistently. In the context of individual sentencing decisions these different meanings of risk can conflict with each other and with other principles such as proportionality.

The study then draws on the results of empirical research on risk assessment in Western Australia. It relates these results to the 'risk' literature which has come to dominate discussions of correctional supervision and treatment programs in North America and have increasingly influenced correctional administrators in Australia and the United Kingdom. The analysis examines risk in the context of offender supervision. A key question addressed in this analysis concerns the utility of risk assessment in providing guidance about the treatment of supervised offenders and also in the provision of pre-sentence reports. It is clear that there are some tensions between considerations of risk and other principles of 'treatment'.

One of the major outcomes of the study is its concrete demonstration of the need for 'risk' to be specified carefully in specific contexts. Risk is too easily discussed in a singular way, as if its application is self-explanatory. Yet, a useful risk assessment requires a precise specification of the nature of the risk in question, the time frame of the assessment, and some specification of those considered to be at risk.