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Assessing Risk Assessments

| September 19, 2017

Validated risk assessments are tools that allow the criminal justice system (courts, probation/parole, and corrections) the opportunity to asses each individual offender as just that, an individual. They allow the system to make more informed determinations relative to bail, sanctions, parole, and treatment needs tailored to that individual. Without risk assessments, offenders appear in court for sentencing, and are then admitted into the corrections system, and eventually considered for parole based solely on prior conduct.  Little, if any, forethought is afforded to the future of that offender.

While there are some issues with risk assessments, judges are afforded a deeper perspective on individual offenders and underlying issues, i.e. mental health or substance abuse that may be factors in the commission of an offense. For example, depending on the nature of the crime, the results of a risk assessment may determine that an offender qualifies as a candidate for a diversion program – such as substance abuse or mental health treatment – rather than, or in addition to incarceration. Even if that offender must be incarcerated, risk assessments put corrections and parole on notice that an individual may require certain treatment both during their period of incarceration and after. This is important, as treatment may be the difference in whether that offender recidivates or receives the help they need to turn their life around.

Tennessee recently adopted a risk assessment tool for certain areas of their corrections system. In accordance with the Public Safety Act of 2016, state, county, and community corrections must perform a validated risk-needs assessment on each individual under their supervision, while pretrial services must include their assessment in the presentence report. This assessment will function as “an actuarial assessment tool” to “assesse the dynamic and static factors that drive criminal behavior.” Ultimately, the assessment will serve as “a determination of a person’s risk to reoffend and the needs that, when addressed, reduce the risk to reoffend.”

Tennessee was in dire need of a tool to assist in the identification of underlying substance abuse and mental health of new offenders and inmates. Prior to its implementation, only 6% of the prison population were assigned to a substance abuse program. There is little doubt that the lack of treatment contributed to the fact that 32% of Tennessee’s prison population consists of parole or probation violators. The risk assessment tool will also benefit the parole board that is currently only paroling about 28% of those eligible.

It is too soon to measure the impact this new risk assessment tool will have on the prison population and recidivism rate in Tennessee.  However, I am encouraged nonetheless. Tennessee’s criminal justice system now has information to make better decisions that it did not have before, and I’m convinced that’s a good thing.


JULIE WARREN is a graduate of Marshall University and of Regent University School of Law. She also attended Georgetown Law Center as a visiting student. While in law school, she clerked on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Julie served four years at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. After a few years in private practice as a civil defense litigator, Julie returned to public service and began her work in the Office of the West Virginia Attorney General where she primarily served as an appellate advocate for the State of West Virginia and as legislative counsel to the Attorney General.