Youth Risk/Need Assessment: An Overview of Issues and Practices

1. Introduction

A trend towards the increased use of actuarial-based risk/need assessments is observable in many western criminal justice systems and in other social service sectors (e.g., welfare, child protection, mental health, etc.).[1] New actuarial and quasi-actuarial techniques of risk/need classification and assessment are said to have supplemented and reshaped both clinical and legal practices.[2] Risk/need assessment tools, which are derived from research on large population samples, are promoted as preferable to subjective, individualized, and discretionary methods of classification. Proponents believe they provide objective, actuarial measurements of risk and need and eliminate arbitrary decision-making, bias, and prejudice, leading to more efficient and impartial classification and rational, just decisions. It is argued that these tools have much better predictive capacity than earlier discretionary methods.

The purpose of this study was to review and critique the concepts of risk and need as they relate to assessments of youth within the Canadian criminal justice system and to identify existing risk/need assessment tools currently used with young offenders. Each provincial/territorial government was contacted in order to identify the central risk/need assessment instruments used with young offenders, and interviews were conducted to determine the purpose and practice of risk/need instruments at various key decision-making stages of the criminal justice system. Particular attention is paid to why certain tools were chosen and attempts are made to document research conducted in the provinces and territories.

An in-depth analysis of the reliability and validity of the scales was not possible because the raw data upon which they are based, as well as the data collected by jurisdictions for validation, were not available to researchers for secondary analysis. Such a task, while valuable,[3] is a major undertaking and beyond the scope of the present project.

  • [1] In Canada, the United States , England, Wales, and Australia, there is evidence of the development, promotion, and increased reliance on such tools to facilitate decision making (see for instance Brown 1996; Clark, Fisher and McDougall 1993; Daley and Lane 1999; Dallao 1997; Dawson 1999; Ditchfield 1997; Gottfredson and Tonry 1987; Mair 1999;).
  • [2] These followed the development of parole and sentencing guidelines.
  • [3] Future research examining these issues of validity and reliability in classification should consult a report prepared by J. Alexander and J. Austin (1992) "Handbook for Evaluating Objective Prison Classifications" National Institute of Justice. This report covers a range of methodological concerns related to risk/needs assessment and classification.
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