There are valid and growing concerns about accuracy, fairness, transparency, and communication in the use of risk and needs assessment. Risk and needs assessment results are not used enough to inform case decisions and management. Criminal justice agencies have not been given the guidance they need to communicate the strengths and limitations of risk and needs assessment. Furthermore, people who are being assessed rarely receive information about these assessments, how they work, and what they will be used to determine.
Advancing Fairness and Transparency: National Guidelines for Post-Conviction Risk and Needs Assessment, a new resource from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs’ Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and The Council of State Governments Justice Center, addresses these gaps with clear, concrete direction. Funded by BJA as a project of the Public Safety Risk Assessment Clearinghouse, the guidelines were developed under the advisement of a national group of researchers, risk and needs assessment instrument developers, practitioners, and leaders in the field. They prioritize accuracy, fairness, and transparency in the communication and use of risk and needs assessment.
These guidelines and their associated resources were developed with a variety of audiences in mind, including legislators, administrators, practitioners, and researchers.
Legislators are uniquely positioned to ensure that the criminal justice agencies they fund are employing risk and needs assessment in a way that promotes accuracy, fairness, transparency, and effective communication and use.
For practitioners who use risk and needs assessment on a day-to-day basis, these guidelines provide clarity, inform case planning, and promote buy-in from the people they assess.
These guidelines equip researchers with the concrete steps needed to evaluate whether risk and needs assessment practices align with the principles of accuracy, fairness, transparency, and effective communication and use.
About the Guidelines
These guidelines were developed to promote accuracy, fairness, transparency, and effective communication and use of risk and needs assessment instruments to inform decisionmaking following conviction. Whatever the setting, the guidelines presume that the intended use of post-conviction risk and needs assessment instruments is to support accurate, fair, and transparent decisions regarding a person’s risk of recidivism. These guidelines also presume that the purpose of post-conviction risk and needs assessment instruments is, ultimately, to promote public safety and positive outcomes for people in the criminal justice system through the least restrictive means possible.
This project was accomplished through the collaborative efforts of researchers, risk and needs assessment instrument developers, practitioners, and leaders in the field who gave generously of their time and expertise over the course of 2.5 years. It draws on an extensive review of literature and related research, observations from the field, feedback from national experts, several multidisciplinary forums and advisory group discussions, and a rigorous review process.
The guidelines are drawn from empirical research and reflect the perspectives of an advisory group comprising nearly 30 researchers, practitioners, and policymakers. Advisory group members participated in several discussions on key concerns in the development, validation, and implementation of post-conviction risk and needs assessment instruments. These guidelines also consider existing statements and guidance on the use of risk and needs assessment instruments written by diverse groups and for diverse contexts.
These guidelines pertain to the use of post-conviction risk and needs assessment instruments to inform decisions and case planning that occur after court disposition—specifically, after conviction and sentencing. They may also be used in the application of assessment results to inform decisionmaking and case planning in the context of alternative forms of criminal justice processing, such as after a decision has been made to offer a diversion program.
Many of the guidelines describe processes or steps that should ideally be taken prior to implementation of a post-conviction risk and needs assessment instrument. But many corrections and community supervision agencies are already using a post-conviction risk and needs assessment instrument. For those agencies, we recommend:
- Conducting an informal review of the extent to which current policies and practices adhere to the action items under each guideline.
- Setting specific goals and identifying priorities for implementing the remaining guidelines over a realistic time period.
The CSG Justice Center convened an advisory group of practitioners, policymakers, researchers, and representatives from national criminal justice organizations to examine and respond to various questions regarding risk and needs assessment.
In March 2020, the CSG Justice Center hosted the first virtual advisory group meeting to discuss the goals of the project and of the advisory group, as well as the proposed deliverables. The meeting featured an introduction by BJA and provided a chance for advisory group members to introduce themselves, their area of focus, and their interest in participating on this project.
In April 2020, the CSG Justice Center developed a brief foundational survey to provide the project team with a baseline sense of how advisory group participants define various terms and concepts related to risk and needs assessment. The survey requested brief responses to seven overall questions focused on definitions of fairness, accuracy, transparency, interrater agreement, fidelity, validation, and revalidation.
In May 2020, the CSG Justice Center hosted the second virtual advisory group meeting to discuss the results of a foundational survey administered to advisory group participants. Discussion centered around areas of the survey where responses indicated some divergence, specifically on the topic of fairness as it relates to risk and needs assessment.
In June 2020, in response to the divergence identified during the second advisory group meeting, the CSG Justice Center developed a brief consensus survey to provide the project team with an overview of the consensus that existed among the advisory group members with respect to definitions of risk and needs, how to advance equity, and contexts to consider that may impact risk and needs assessment. The survey requested brief responses to six overall questions focused on these topics.
In July 2020, the CSG Justice Center hosted the second virtual advisory group meeting to discuss initial thoughts regarding the development of a very preliminary draft of the proposed guidelines focused on accuracy, fairness, and transparency. Based on this initial draft and review of the guidelines, it became clear to the project team that there was a need to add a fourth overarching principle—effective communication and use. Advisory group participants discussed proposed additions to the guidelines based on questions that arose during development of the draft, review of consensus survey responses, and previous advisory group conversations. The project team solicited the views of the advisory group views on the fourth overarching principle. The conversation focused on topics such as (1) consistency of communication across assessors, (2) clarity of communication, (3) format and presentation of results, (4) content being communicated, and (5) order of information.
In September 2020, CSG Justice Center staff hosted a meeting with advocates, advisory group members, and representatives from BJA. The virtual presentation included an overview of the state of the field, a glance at the goals of the project, and an introduction from advisory group panel members regarding the project topics and proposed guidelines. The goal of this meeting was to capture any thoughts advocates might have regarding the project, the proposed guidelines, and additional feedback.
In February 2021, the CSG Justice Center hosted the fourth advisory group meeting to discuss the companion guide. This working group meeting allowed the advisory group to discuss the proposed guidelines among themselves, think through outstanding questions, and provide any additional notes to the project team in order to achieve consensus.
Thank you to this publication’s group of expert advisors whose input greatly informed the development of these guidelines. The following collaborators provided insights and resources that were truly invaluable:
- Ashlee Barnes, Virginia Commonwealth University
- Mark Bergstrom, Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing
- Guy Bourgon, Public Safety Canada (ret.), Clinical and Consulting Psychology Practice
- Kristofer “Bret” Bucklen, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections
- Christina Campbell, University of Cincinnati
- Bree Derrick, Idaho Department of Correction
- Kevin Douglas, Simon Fraser University
- Grant Duwe, Minnesota Department of Corrections
- Joel Dvoskin, University of Arizona College of Medicine
- Carey Green, Criminal Justice Assistance Division, Texas Department of Criminal Justice
- Stephen Hart, Protect International Risk and Safety Services
- Kirk Heilbrun, Drexel University
- Natalie Jennifer Jones, Evaluation Division of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
- KiDeuk Kim, Urban Institute
- Daryl Kroner, Southern Illinois University
- Edward Latessa, University of Cincinnati
- Brian Lovins, Justice System Partners
- Eyitayo Onifade, Clark Atlanta University
- Osonde Osoba, Center for Scalable Computing and Analysis, Pardee RAND Graduate School
- Sarah Picard, Center for Court Innovation
- Charles Robinson, Administrative Office of the United States Courts
- Ralph Serin, Criminal Justice Decision Making Laboratory, Carleton University
- Christopher Slobogin, Vanderbilt University Law School
- Raymond “Chip” Tafrate, Central Connecticut State University
- Faye Taxman, George Mason University
- Gina Vincent, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Center for Mental Health Services Research