The Definitive FAQ on Risk and Needs Assessments

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The Definitive FAQ on Risk and Needs Assessments

Risk and needs assessments have come under a lot of scrutiny in the justice sector, and it’s not uncommon for our customers to get questions from their stakeholders about their use of assessments in evidence-based practice.

We’ve compiled a list of the top five questions we hear and straightforward answers to help you educate others and demonstrate why assessments are helping you advance justice in your community:

1. What are risk and needs assessments?

Risk and needs assessments (RNA) collect data from justice-involved individuals and use that data to support decisions made at nearly every step of the justice lifecycle. RNA should be scientifically validated using approved research methodologies.

They serve two primary functions:

  • Predictive – Risk assessments estimate the likelihood an offender will recidivate. The risk level should then be utilized to determine possible level of supervision and program eligibility.
  • Descriptive – Needs assessments identify and prioritize the barriers to reducing the probability of a person reoffending. Identifying needs can guide decisions for case managers whose focus is on the scope and types of treatment interventions that would be the most beneficial to the person.

RNA provide data outputs that may support the decision-making processes in a courtroom, but these tools do not replace the role of a judge or dictate a course of action during sentencing.

2. Who uses risk and needs assessments?

RNA are used by courts, community corrections, institutions, jails, parole boards, and other justice-related agencies. They’re used at several points in the justice process, primarily to inform decisions. Different types of assessments exist, some for very specific points in the justice process, and assessments should not be “mixed and matched”.  For example, risk scales of a RNA should not be used in lieu of a Pretrial Risk Assessment to assess the risk of a defendant during the pretrial stage.

3. What are the benefits of using a RNA?

Justice agencies rely on RNA as decision-support tools because they have been repeatedly proven to reduce subjectivity and bias, ensure consistency, and improve prediction. Risk and needs assessments are more accurate than human judgment alone, and they offer a tremendous amount of detail about a person that is otherwise unavailable through criminal history or case data.

4. Are they really more accurate?

Yes! Scientists have been studying, validating, evaluating, examining, and re-validating these tools for decades, and the answer to this question is a resounding YES. Naysayers have cropped up from time to time, and their “science” is always quickly rebuffed by criminal justice experts. The industry experts agree: RNA are effective and are making a positive impact on communities across the country.

  • “Research has shown the superiority of actuarial approaches to decision making over intuitive judgments in a variety of contexts, including recidivism risk.” National Center for State Courts
  • “There is evidence to support that assessments of risk using structured approaches produce estimates that are both more accurate and more consistent across assessors compared to subjective or unstructured approaches.” Council of State Governments Justice Center
  • “Risk and needs assessment tools, implemented properly and confirmed in their accuracy, allow corrections officials to understand the likelihood of a person under their supervision to commit a new crime. That assessment informs the programming and interventions a person receives to ultimately reduce recidivism and increase public safety in a cost-effective way.” National Reentry Resource Center

5. What kind of data is captured in RNA?

The type (and quantity) of data collected is dependent on how a criminal justice agency plans to use the assessment. Risk assessments and needs assessments serve very different functions, and thus different data points are necessary.

At a very general level, RNA collect a combination of static and dynamic data points. Static data makes up a very small proportion of what’s collected and includes things such as criminal history and current case information (i.e., charges). The more robust data points are dynamic, including social, attitudinal, habitual, psychological and personality factors that are highly individualized.

Agencies rarely have a need to use every assessment question available to them. Depending on which RNA an agency has implemented, an agency could select different scales (sets of questions) to use based on the point in the justice process, the specific decision(s) the assessment is being used to inform, and the agency’s capabilities and organizational capacity. In this way, RNA can be highly tailored to each decision point to make the best use of the agency’s resources and to provide the most targeted decision support possible.

Have more questions? Let’s talk.

Most of the conversations you’re having about risk and needs assessments probably go beyond the basics, so when you’re ready to dig deeper, give us a call. And if you’re working with stakeholders who may be approaching the conversation from a place of misinformation, you may also want to check out our RNA: Separating Fact from Fiction piece.

No matter where you are in your RNA journey, we can help. Contact us today for information, support, and expert perspective to help you keep moving forward.