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History of Risk Assessment

Public Safety Risk Assessment Clearinghouse

History of Risk Assessment

The history of risk prediction in criminal justice traces back to the early 1900s, when correctional staff relied on their own professional judgments about whether someone was likely to comply with parole conditions, for example. Modern-day assessments are more comprehensive in scope and systematic in nature. In the current landscape, it is accepted practice to use actuarial calculations to classify individuals and customize the justice response to optimize outcomes. This evolution from educated “guess” to evidence-based prediction occurred over four generations of risk assessment development, described in this section. Understanding this historical context can help practitioners and policymakers contextualize the value and utility of modern risk assessment instruments in increasing consistency, fairness, and effectiveness of the justice system.

Evolution of Risk Assessment

Explore the key features and differences between the generations of risk assessment instruments below. The second and subsequent generations represent a move away from the subjectivity of the first generation, but they do not replace professional judgment as an aspect of the assessment process. As discussed in Implementation, there are relevant considerations that require sound professional judgment.

First Generation: Professional Judgments
Second Generation: Actuarial Assessments of Static Factors
Third Generation: Actuarial Assessments of Static and Dynamic Factors
Fourth Generation: Integration of Case Management

First Generation:
Professional Judgments

First generation risk assessments were professional judgments made by clinical or correctional staff relying on their personal training and experience. Absent structured criteria or checklists, professionals examined an individual’s characteristics or behavior and assessed the likelihood of reoffending (or of justice noncompliance, such as failure to appear at trial). Regardless of the value of professional expertise, clinical judgments were subject to natural human error and cognitive biases (both implicit and explicit)—making the advent of more objective, evidence-based approaches desirable.

Second Generation:
Actuarial Assessments of Static Factors

Originating in the 1920s, actuarial assessments of risk to reoffend became increasingly commonplace in criminal justice agencies, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. These second generation risk assessments were numeric predictions derived from analyses of static risk factors. The first actuarial tool was developed for the Illinois parole system (Burgess, 1936[C]) and used marital status, criminal and employment history, and institutional misconduct to assess the likelihood of reoffending; calculations were based on analyses of data for 3,000 individuals paroled in Chicago. For a simplified example of this tool, see What is risk assessment Since that time, second generation tools have been widely used to inform criminal justice decision-making (e.g., Salient Factor Scale[C] by the U.S. Parole Commission) and are still prevalent among criminal justice agencies.

Compared to the first generation risk assessments, the primary benefit of second generation risk assessments is the incorporation of structured, objective, and evidence-based criteria for assessing risk to reoffend, which emerged as more accurate and reliable[C] than professional judgments alone. The key drawback is their inability to capture dynamic changes in individuals’ attitudes, behaviors, and needs over time.

Third Generation:
Actuarial Assessments of Static and Dynamic Factors

The third generation of risk assessments incorporated theoretically derived, dynamic factors linked directly to criminal behavior, labeled as criminogenic needs[C]. Because criminogenic needs are changeable and related to reoffending, their incorporation into risk assessments helps practitioners target and monitor risk reduction efforts. Notably, third generation risk assessments were developed in direct support of the risk-need-responsivity principles[C], which argue that rehabilitation efforts will be effective when they match the level of risk, type of criminogenic need, and learning style and motivations (responsivity) of the individual being treated. In other words, people at high-risk to reoffend with many potentially changeable criminogenic needs should be targeted for the strongest rehabilitation efforts. By contrast, minimal efforts should be reserved for those at low-risk and those with few criminogenic needs.

Fourth Generation:
Integration of Case Management

While third generation instruments help practitioners allocate supervision and intervention resources, fourth generation instruments emphasize the structured monitoring of individuals over time—to maximize treatment and supervision benefits. Fourth generation instruments focus on responsivity considerations that may affect how practitioners relate to their clients and select appropriate interventions for them at appropriate times. In other words, fourth generation instruments can help practitioners efficiently integrate case planning and risk management efforts.