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Compendium 2000 on Effective Correctional Programming

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Offender Assessment: General Issues and Considerations


There are few activities in corrections as important as the assessment of offenders. An accurate assessment facilitates the fair, efficient and ethical classification of offenders. A failure to conduct a proper assessment can lead to serious consequences. An inmate can be placed within an inadequate security setting and subsequently escapes; a Parole Board mistakenly releases an offender who was thought not to present a danger; and a parole officer fails to recognize a parolee's deteriorating situation. These are but a few examples that illustrate the importance of offender assessment.

In general, the assessment of offenders has centred on issues related to security and release. Without a doubt, the assessment of risk is very important for corrections. However, there is an under-standing that offender risk assessment is also related to effective treatment. This is a recent development. Conducting an offender assessment has always been the first step toward offender treatment. But, rarely has offender assessment for treatment purposes been considered in the context of risk. Usually, assessments for treatment planning were conducted in the context of assessing offender needs. We are currently seeing a convergence in thinking about offender assessment that bridges the traditional concerns of safety and security and offender rehabilitation.

This chapter presents an overview of what we know about offender risk assessment. The review will also extend beyond the prediction of an offender's risk to reoffend. It includes a discussion of the risk and needs assessments that underlie effective treatment. We begin with a discussion of how our understanding of criminal behaviour influences our approach to offender assessments. After reviewing different explanations of criminal behaviour, the research seems to support a general personality and social psychological perspective. This perspective leads us to a number of useful ideas and practices. It not only increases predictive accuracy but it also highlights the relevance of dynamic risk factors or criminogenic needs. The identification of dynamic risk factors is critical for assessment approaches that improve the treatment of offenders.


Almost everyone has an explanation as to why certain individuals break the law. Although these explanations make interesting social conversation, there are people who devote careers out of explaining criminal behaviour. Criminologists, sociologists, psychiatrists and psychologists think about what may cause crime and formulate theories of criminal behaviour. They then search for evidence in support of their theories. The findings generated from research studies are used to modify the theories, and some-times to discount them.

Opening any introductory criminology textbook will reveal numerous theories or explanations of criminal behaviour. For our purposes, it is unnecessary to review each single theory and the evidence for them. Most theories of criminal behaviour can be grouped into three broad perspectives of criminal con-duct. Furthermore, each of these perspectives suggests very different approaches to offender assessment (and treatment). Choosing the theory that produces the best assessment practices is a highly desired goal.

The three major perspectives of criminal behaviour are:

  • Sociological
  • Psychopathological
  • General Personality and Social Psychological

Sociological perspectives

The sociological perspectives proposes that social, political and economic factors are responsible for crime. For example, poverty, lack of employment and educational opportunities, and systemic bias toward minority groups cause frustrations and motivations to engage in crime. These perspectives, in one form or another, say that society creates crime. That is, society is largely responsible for crime and the solution to crime rests in altering the social, political and economic situations of society's members.

Psychopathological perspectives

The psychopathological theories forward a view that is almost opposite to the sociological theories. Within the psychopathological perspective, people commit criminal acts because there is something psychologically or emotionally wrong with them. The cause of crime is located in the individual who has a “sickness” or a deficit of some sort and not in society. Individuals disobey the laws and norms of society because of a neurosis, or they are following the commands of internal voices. They may have too much testosterone that drives them to commit sexual crimes or they have a neurological disorder that results in uncontrolled, violent behaviour. For the psychopathological theories, it does not matter if one is poor or not, from an ethnic minority or a politically powerless group, these afflictions and diseases know no economic, social and political boundaries.

General personality and social psychological perspectives

The general personality and social psychological perspectives emphasize the learning of attitudes, emotions and behaviours that lead to criminal conduct. The focus is the individual (like the psychopathological theories) but it is the learning experiences of the person that account for crime. It is not so much that the offender is “sick”, but that the offender was exposed to situations that rewarded and encouraged antisocial behaviour. For example, a child who grows up in a home where the parent(s) allow aggressive and hostile behaviour, model antisocial attitudes and fail to direct the child in prosocial activities (e.g., school) and appropriate friendships, learns antisocial behaviour.

Each of the three perspectives directs our attention to different factors for understanding criminal behaviour. As a consequence, they suggest what should be assessed when dealing with offenders. Table 4.1 illustrates how the various perspectives forward certain variables as candidates for assessment. For example, the sociological perspectives stress the assessment of social position. (e.g., social class, economic wealth, etc.). The psychopathological models emphasize the assessment of psychological discomfort and pathology (e.g., feelings of anxiety, thought disorder). Finally, the general personality and social psychological perspectives point to a broad range of interpersonal (e.g., peer and family support for crime), personal (e.g., employment, substance abuse, procriminal attitudes) and social (e.g., neighbourhood opportunities for crime) factors.

TABLE 4.1 The relationship between theory and offender assessment


Theoretical Perspective

Example Characteristics Assessed
Sociological Social status (e.g., age, gender)
Race and ethnicity
Financial status


Psychological discomfort (e.g., anxiety)


Bizarre thoughts

General Personality & Social Psychological

Peer support for behaviour

Employment instability


Antisocial attitudes


Antisocial personality


Substance abuse

  Antisocial behavioural history
  High crime neighbourhood

If we think about assessment from a theoretical perspective, we can make a few general observations. First, depending on the theoretical model, the range of variables seen as important varies. On one hand, the sociological perspective highlights relatively few variables for assessment. For the most part, assessments of social position are sufficient. Ask a few questions about one's financial situation and social and ethnic membership and the assessment is done. The other two perspectives consider many more variables. The general personality and social psychological model is particularly comprehensive as it considers social and situational factors in addition to psychological variables.

A second observation is that the sociological perspectives minimize the relevance of individual characteristics. This differential weighing of individual and broad social variables distinguish the sociological perspective from the other two theoretical viewpoints. The psychopathological and general personality and social psychology theories give considerable attention to the thoughts and feelings of individuals. In the sociological theories individual motivations, thoughts and emotions are barely mentioned.

Finally, the factors considered important in sociological perspectives of crime are mostly static factors. By focusing on static factors, the idea that people can change does not merit consideration and offender rehabilitation is assigned a minor role. You can not change one's race or ethnicity nor go from a state of poverty to wealth without the benefit of winning a major lottery. Because these socio-economic factors are largely unalterable, they can hardly serve as individual treatment goals.

At this point the reader may understandably feel a bit confused. What theory should be chosen to direct offender assessment activities? An evaluation of the evidence in support of a theoretical position is the key for selection among competing theories. A simple and straightforward way of evaluating a theoretical perspective is to see if the factors identified by theory are actually related to criminal behaviour. For example, are financial earnings, ethnicity, “nervousness”, and having criminal friends associated with an individual's criminal conduct?


Table 4.2 summarizes the findings from two reviews of the literature on the prediction of criminal behaviour. One is based upon general offenders (Gendreau, Little, & Goggin, 1996) and the other one focuses on mentally disordered offenders (Bonta, Law, & Hanson, 1998). Both reviews used the statistic r (Pearson correlation coefficient) as their measure of association between two variables. An r of zero indicates no association between a variable and recidivism. An r of 1.0 is a perfect association, something that only happens when the experimenter makes a computational error. Sometimes the r is negative meaning that the association is in the opposite direction. For example, the r of -0.19 for “mental disorder” indicates that having a mental disorder is associated with less recidivism. When r is less than 0.10, the association is considered quite weak. However, r values that exceed 0.10 can have practical significance.

As can be seen in Table 4.2, factors considered important by sociological and psychopathological theories of crime were among the weaker predictors. This was true regardless of the type of offender sample. In some cases (e.g., socio-economic status, personal distress) the correlations were extremely low.

The overall conclusion drawn from Table 4.2 is that the evidence is more favourable to the general personality and social learning perspective of criminal behaviour than the other two theoretical orientations. It is also noteworthy that three of the best predictors (criminal companions, antisocial personality and antisocial attitudes) are potentially changeable or dynamic. This is particularly important for treatment considerations as these variables can serve as goals in rehabilitation programs. The evidence presented in Table 4.2 is by no means the only evidence in support of a general personality and social learning perspective of criminal behaviour.2

TABLE 4.2 Predictors of criminal recidivism (r)

Theoretical Perspective/Predictor
General Offenders
Mentally Disordered
Socio-economic status
Personal distress
Intellectual functioning
Mental disorder
General Personality & Social Learning
Criminal history
Criminal companions
Antisocial personality
Antisocial attitudes
NR = Not reported.    


An empirically defensible theory may tell us what factors are important but theory does not tell us how best to assess these factors. How to assess offender characteristics is a technical measurement problem. In most situations where offender assessment plays a role, the underlying challenge is to correctly predict the criminal behaviour of the client. There are two general approaches to making decisions about the future criminal behaviour of offenders (i.e., recidivism). One approach, often referred to as the clinical method, uses subjective and professional judgements to assess the variables deemed important by theory. The other approach is more objective and leaves less room for subjective interpretation. This second approach is referred to as the actuarial method because it involves statistical evidence to base estimates of risk.

To illustrate the distinction in approaches, let us use the variable antisocial attitudes. Antisocial attitudes can be assessed in different ways. One can search for evidence of antisocial attitudes during a conversation with the offender (clinical method) or one can administer a paper-and-pencil test of antisocial attitudes (actuarial). In the first case, professional skills and experience are required to elicit and note expressions of antisocial attitudes. The interviewer may vary the questions asked from offender to offender. The problem with this is that the way information is gathered may potentially influence responses and therefore, the reliability of the assessment of antisocial attitudes. In the administration of a paper-and-pencil test, the assessment is con-ducted in a standard manner. Offenders are asked exactly the same questions and their responses are recorded in the same way for everyone.

In the real world, both approaches are frequently used together. However, the research suggests that one can place greater credibility in one approach over the other. Studies comparing clinical and actuarial methods in the prediction of criminal behaviour, or any behaviour for that manner, usually show that assessments based upon the objective approach tend to be more accurate (Grove & Meehl, 1996). What do we mean by “more accurate”? In any prediction task, there are four possible outcomes (see Table 4.3). You can predict that something will happen, and it does (cells A and D). For example, a Parole Board may predict that an offender is dangerous and the offender actually goes on to commit a violent crime (cell A). Or, the Board may predict that the offender is no risk to the public and it turns out that the offender makes a successful reintegration to society (cell D). You can make mistakes (cells B and C). For example, parole is denied to someone who, on follow-up, commits no new crimes (cell B) or parole is granted to an offender who reoffends violently (cell C).

A problem occurs when people assign different importance to the types of predictions and errors. To illustrate, one may be quite fearful in making a mistake that results in a new violent offence. A prediction strategy that would minimize this type of error would be to predict that all offenders would commit another crime. Of course, you will be right and capture every-one who may act in a dangerous manner (cell A) and there would be no one in cell C. But, at what cost? Studies suggest that there are large numbers of offenders who will not reoffend (cell B). For some, the numbers in cell B are a minor problem (“saving one victim is enough”). For others (e.g., civil libertarians, financial managers) it represents a serious social and economic issue. The offenders in cell B are denied freedom and unnecessarily incarcerated at great financial costs.

TABLE 4.3 The prediction task

Actually Reoffends

Predicted to:



Not Reoffend

In general, it is best to think of predictive accuracy in terms of the overall proportions of correct predictions and errors. That is, we need to know how the numbers are distributed across all four cells to gain a true appreciation of our predictions. We must also accept the reality that no prediction instrument will be perfect. We can continue to work towards maximizing our correct predictions and minimizing our errors but we must be careful not to over-promise in our ability to predict. From our discussion of clinical and actuarial approaches to offender assessment, our starting point for improving predictive accuracy is to use actuarial methods in the measurement of offender characteristics and their situations.

Measuring theoretically relevant factors in an objective, actuarial manner, unfortunately, is not as easy as it sounds. Any measuring instrument will have some error associated with it. Even the trusty ruler that you had since grade school is not 100% accurate. When it comes to the assessment of human factors, the range of error is considerably greater than errors associated with mechanical instruments such as rulers, weigh scales, etc. This is one reason why we can never achieve perfect prediction.

One approach of limiting measurement error is to use different methods for assessing the same factor. Returning to the example of antisocial attitudes, we can measure this variable with a paper-and-pencil test and by way of a structured personal inter-view. Structured interviews are not open-ended clinical interviews. The structured interview involves an observable and clear method for asking questions and recording the answers. Furthermore, the results from structured interviews can be quantified and evaluated as to their validity.

By using more than one method of assessment, the problems associated with one method of assessment are counter-balanced by another method. For example, a potential problem with a paper-and-pencil measure is that one may not be certain that the offender understood the questions or if he/she was motivated to answer truthfully. In an interview approach, the interviewer can verify whether the questions are understood and gauge the offender's interest and motivation. Likewise, a problem with even structured interviews is that the interviewer still has some discretion to make slight alternations to the questions and therefore, affect the results. To counter this potential bias, paper-and-pencil measures permit no alterations in the questions. Research has shown that when more than one method is used to assess a certain offender characteristic, the overall predictive accuracy improves significantly. These research findings are easily translated into practice and the best correctional practices are seen when we use multiple methods (e.g., questionnaires, interviews, and direct behavioural observations).

The objective, multi-method measurement of theoretically relevant factors is the first step in improving predictive accuracy. The second step to improving predictive accuracy is to combine the individual factors to form more comprehensive offender assessment measures. The combining of factors are usually done in one of two ways. The simplest, called the Burgess method, is to assign a score of 1 if the factor is present and 0 if the factor is absent. Thus, you can have a number of items/factors in a scale that are simply scored (0 or 1) and then summated to give an overall score. The other method uses advanced statistical techniques to assign different weights to the factors. For example, gender may be seen as having more importance than anxiety level. Therefore, being male may be assigned a score of 4 and high anxiety levels a score of 1. An example of an offender assessment instrument using the Burgess method is the Level of Service Inventory -- Revised and an example using the weighting method is the Wisconsin Risk-Needs scale. The research evidence however, does not favour one approach of assigning scores over the other.

In the review by Gendreau et al. (1996), the r values frequently exceeded 0.30 when risk factors were combined into more general offender assessment instruments. The improvements are particularly robust when the factors come from different areas or domains. This is expected according to a general personality and social psychological theory. The theory hypothesises that there are many different factors that lead to criminal behaviour. A behavioural history of antisocial behaviour, criminal companions, antisocial attitudes, antisocial personality, family functioning, and substance abuse are some of the more important factors. Therefore, assessment instruments should measure these different domains rather than simply focus on one or two areas. Some offender assessment instruments are quite specific and focus on only one or two domains. The Statistical Information on Recidivism scale, for example, is very heavily weighted on criminal history factors. The Psychopathy Checklist -- Revised measures personality and criminal lifestyle features. These instruments produce relatively good predictive accuracy. However, their largely static qualities limit their usefulness in other important correctional practices such as treatment.

Finally, if we apply multi-method assessments to the different domains or factors related to criminal behaviour and then combine these domains, the prediction estimates increase substantially. A study by Andrews, Wormith, and Kiessling (1985) presents impressive evidence on how multi-method and multi-domain sampling can improve prediction. Adult probationers were given an assessment battery that measured different domains and used different methods of measurement. They found that the correlation (r) for antisocial attitudes and recidivism was 0.46 when a paper-and-pencil measure was used and 0.63 when it was combined with a structured interview. When this information was combined with other domains (e.g., antisocial personality, criminal history, age), the correlation (Canonical correlation to be precise) increased to a value of 0.74.


Risk assessment

Having settled upon using an actuarial approach to assess theoretically relevant characteristics, and aware of the value of multi-method and multi-domain assessment techniques, we need to consider why we are conducting the assessment. In the introductory statements to this chapter, we saw that one purpose is the assessment of risk to reoffend. Although, risk assessment is obviously important for release and security decisions, it also has implications for treatment planning.

Table 4.4 gives three examples of what can happen when treatment programs are delivered to offenders who pose different levels of risk. Note that none of the examples show reductions in recidivism when treatment is delivered to low risk offenders. Actually, the trend is toward increased recidivism for low risk offenders who receive treatment. Reductions in recidivism are found when intensive levels of treatment are directed to higher risk offenders. The findings displayed in Table 4.4 mirror the results from nearly 300 tests of this “risk-by-treatment” effect (Andrews & Bonta, 1998). This general result is referred to as the Risk principle of effective treatment. That is, in order to reduce recidivism, intensive levels of treatment need to be directed to higher risk offenders.3

As Table 4.4 shows, assessments of offender risk are important for more than just release decisions and security classifications. Appropriate decisions concerning who to place into treatment are informed by offender risk. The Risk principle is especially informative for clinicians and treatment staff who have been schooled and trained in therapeutic techniques that are suited to clients who are verbally skilled, reflective and socially skilled. Although the “talking” and relationship oriented therapies can be helpful to many people, they are not very effective with the typical offender client. Many offenders lack the verbal and thinking skills required by these counselling techniques.

Consequently, when therapists practising relationship, verbal therapies meet failure with the offender client, they tend to blame the failure on the client's “resistance” and “lack of motivation” rather than the technique.

TABLE 4.4 Recidivism rates (%) as a function of treatment intensity and offender risk

Treatment Intensity
Risk Level
Andrews & Kiessling (1980)
Bonta, Wallace-Capretta, & Rooney (1999)
Andrews & Friesen (1985)

Some observers have long admonished correctional and forensic therapists for preferring to counsel the low risk young, attractive, verbal, intelligent and socially skilled (YAVIS) client rather than the higher risk client who really needs the service. Not surprisingly, many therapists like to counsel the YAVIS client. This description of the preferred client also fits the description of the low risk offender. Low risk offenders are certainly more pleasant to counsel. Moreover, some of our ideas about criminals make it relatively easy to dismiss efforts for dealing with higher risk offenders (“he's a psychopath”, “he's too hard core to change”). The research evidence however, suggests that it is the higher risk client that can benefit from treatment more so than the lower risk offender. Fortunately, the importance of targeting higher risk offenders is permeating throughout the field as more treatment effort is being directed to higher risk offenders.

Needs assessment

One of the important derivations from a general personality and social psychological perspective of criminal conduct is that many of the factors identified as important are dynamic or change-able. An individual can change their attitudes and friends, he/she can find or lose a job, stop taking drugs or begin to drink heavily, and so on. Even antisocial personality features can be changed if we consider antisocial personality in a very broad sense rather than in the narrow sense of a diagnosis of psychopathy. This view of antisocial personality encourages attempts to change a constellation of dynamic offender attributes such as thrill seeking, impulsiveness and egocentrism.

For offender assessment, the theory highlights the importance of objectively and systematically assessing dynamic risk factors. Reviews of the literature show that dynamic risk factors predict recidivism as well as static risk factors (Gendreau et al., 1996). More importantly, changes in dynamic risk factors have been associated with changes in recidivism. Table 4.5 shows the results from a study by Andrews and Wormith (1984) where probationers were tested and retested on a measure of antisocial attitudes. Note for example, how offenders who scored low on a measure of antisocial attitudes at the beginning of supervision but scored more antisocial in their attitudes on the retest demonstrated increases in recidivism (from 10% to 20% to 67% when they scored in the high range). Likewise, when antisocial attitudes decreased, there was a trend toward reduced recidivism.

TABLE 4.5 Recidivism rates (%) as a function of changes in antisocial attitudes

Risk at End
Risk at Start

Dynamic risk factors are also referred to as criminogenic needs. Criminogenic needs are those offender needs that when changed are associated with changes in recidivism. The Need principle of effective rehabilitation calls for the targeting of criminogenic needs in treatment programs. From an assessment perspective, the measurement of criminogenic needs is highly important for directing treatment services and for the active supervision of offenders.

The evidence is convincing that interventions that target criminogenic needs are associated with reductions in recidivism (Andrews & Bonta, 1998). The majority of offenders in Canada are under community supervision and almost all inmates are eventually released from custody. The public and correctional staff expects that when offenders are released from institutions and supervised in the community, their risk to public safety is being effectively managed. To reach the goal of reduced risk, correctional workers must address the criminogenic needs of offenders. To support the safe release of inmates, institutional staff must demonstrate reductions in measured criminogenic needs. At present, there are intervention programs that are reasonably effective and assessment instruments that reliably document changes in dynamic risk factors. Some of the assessment instruments are quite specific to a particular criminogenic need (e.g., measures of substance abuse or antisocial attitudes) and other instruments provide more general assessments of offender risk and needs (e.g., the Level of Service Inventory -- Revised; Andrews & Bonta 1995).

For offenders under community supervision, the monitoring of dynamic risk factors assumes an additional significance. Probation and parole officers need to be attentive to both improvement and deterioration in the offender's situation. Community supervisors easily note dramatic changes in the offender's situation. However, more subtle and gradual changes are not so easy to detect. Reliance on subjective, professional judgements of change is difficult to defend when objective, empirically based assessment measures are available. This is especially true when correctional staff can administer many of these measures after brief training. That is, psychologists and psychiatrists are not required to administer risk-need assessment instruments or many of the paper-and-pencil measures of criminogenic needs that are available.

To summarize thus far, there have been significant advances in the development of assessment measures for offender risk and criminogenic needs. One of the most important advances over the past twenty years is the recognition of the importance of dynamic risk factors for both treatment planning and offender supervision. Systematic assessments and re-assessments of offender dynamic risk factors should be a mandatory feature of any correctional system. It is the only reasonable way of monitoring the effectiveness of offender services and supervision.

A significant amount of assessment research is now directed to improving measures of criminogenic needs and extending the assessment of dynamic risk factors to special subgroups of offenders. For example, research on dynamic risk factors with sex offenders is one important area where studies are currently underway (Hanson & Harris, 1998). Other offender groups that require more specialized assessments include women offenders, male batterers and mentally disordered offenders. Although the assessment of offender risk and criminogenic needs garner the bulk of the research on offender assessment, an emerging area of research is the assessment of offender responsivity.

Assessment of responsivity factors

How people learn from life's experiences depends, in part, on certain cognitive, personality and social-personal factors. These factors may, or may not be, offender risk factors or criminogenic needs. They do however, influence the individual's responsiveness to efforts to help them to change their attitudes, thoughts and behaviours. These responsivity factors play an important role in choosing the type and style of treatment that would be most effective in bringing about a change. A few illustrations of responsivity factors are helpful in understanding this concept.

Our first example is taken from the cognitive domain. Individuals vary in their thinking styles (e.g., concrete vs. abstract, impulsive vs. reflective) and general intelligence. In terms of risk, neither of these two factors are particularly strong risk factors (remember Table 4.2). However, these cognitive factors are very important with respect to learning new thoughts and behaviours. They influence how an individual best profits from instruction and the ease of learning. Two offenders may be of equal risk to reoffend and have the same criminogenic needs but they can differ in their cognitive level and style. One may be more verbally skilled and quicker to grasp complex ideas while the other is less cognitively skilled. The goals of treatment are the same but how one reaches that goal will be influenced by the client's cognitive responsivity factors. For the more cognitively skilled client, a program that is highly verbal and that requires abstract reasoning skills may be effective. However, this same approach would present a serious challenge for the less cognitively sophisticated offender.

Another example is taken from the personality domain, the trait of anxiety. Once again, a responsivity factor without risk or criminogenic need qualities. Levels of anxiety are poor predictors of recidivism and decreases in anxiety are not associated with reductions in recidivism. Yet, the anxiety levels of offenders could impact on the choice of treatment. For example, an anger management program may work well in a group format consisting of relatively non-anxious individuals. For clients who are extremely anxious in social situations, the program would be more effective if delivered on an individual basis.

Some risk and criminogenic need factors may have responsivity characteristics. For example, offenders described as having an antisocial personality are not only higher risk offenders with many criminogenic needs, but their lack of empathy and anxiety require an intervention approach that is highly structured. Their energetic and restless nature calls for a treatment style that is active and stimulating. Classroom discussions and quiet readings are not the preferred mode of intervention for these types of offenders.

Objective measures of antisocial personality are available with one of the best validated instruments being Hare's Psychopathy Checklist. Unfortunately, because the Psychopathy Checklist is often used to form a diagnosis of psychopathy, the instrument is not conducive to treatment planning. A diagnosis of psychopathy is often seen as a sign of untreatability. As a result, efforts to treat “psychopathic” offenders is minimal despite the fact that there is no convincing evidence that theoretically relevant interventions will not “work”. In addition, there is no research exploring the role of psychopathy and/or antisocial personality as a responsivity factor.

Psychologists have been extremely successful in developing valid and reliable measures of other responsivity factors. There are many excellent measures of intelligence (e.g., the Wechsler IQ scale), anxiety (e.g., Spielberger's State-Trait Anxiety Inventory), and interpersonal maturity (e.g., Jesness I-Level). There is however, a need to develop good measures of impulsiveness, empathy and self-control, to name a few. Clearly, there is much work to be done.

In addition to cognitive and personality characteristics, some personal and demographic characteristics may operate as responsivity factors. Two possible candidates are gender and ethnicity. Women offenders may respond better to a style of intervention that is more women centred. Aboriginal offenders may benefit from a program offered by native counsellors and elders. Although there is no need for assessment measures of personal and demographic characteristics, there is a need for research examining the most effective styles of treatment based on gender and ethnicity factors.


Research in offender assessment holds excitement and promise. Progress in the development of offender assessment instruments has been significant and there is little reason to think that this progress will slow in the near future. A listing of the achievements over the past two decades is impressive and worthy of review. They are:

  1. A growing recognition of a theoretical model of criminal behaviour that has empirical support and practical implications.
  • A general personality and social psychological perspective of criminal behaviour has received significant empirical support and it has identified some of the relevant factors for assessment. The theoretical model emphasizes the importance of both static and dynamic risk factors that form a bridge between offender assessment and treatment.
  1. A shift from professional judgements to a reliance on objective, empirical approaches in offender assessment.
  • Clinicians and other professionals are recognizing that their predictions of criminal recidivism can be enhanced with the use of objective assessment instruments. This is not to say that clinical and professional judgement need to be abandoned. There will always be cases where professional experience would be helpful. In addition, professional decision making can be made more observable and open to empirical validation. The development of structured clinical assessment instruments such as the HCR-20 is an example of how clinical assessments can be improved.
  1. An acceptance of the fact that prediction of criminal behaviour will never be perfect.
  • For a long time, many expected that social science methods would lead to an assessment technology that would yield almost perfect prediction. In actuality, prediction has fallen far short of perfection. Even the best instruments today produce high rates of error. However, improvements are being made and only the unabashed and ill-informed optimist expects that we will ever have an offender risk instrument that makes no mistakes. Accepting the complexity of human behaviour and the inherent errors associated with measurement is liberating. We are no longer chained to false hopes and unrealistic expectations.
  1. The cataloguing of risk factors.
  • Meta-analytic reviews of the recidivism prediction literature have produced a veritable menu of the risk factors associated with criminal behaviour. We have never had such a compilation of what should be assessed. More importantly, for the first time, we have a ranking of risk factors that direct us to focus on the assessment of the more critical offender characteristics.
  1. The discovery of the importance of dynamic risk factor
  • Limiting our offender assessments of risk to static factors has hindered our efforts to develop effective rehabilitation programs. Dynamic risk factors, or criminogenic needs, open the door for designing and evaluating treatment programs. Knowledge of dynamic risk factors is also valuable for the monitoring and supervision of offenders.
  1. Combining static and dynamic risk factors into risk-needs instruments.
  • Adding dynamic risk information to the static risk scales has yielded many advantages. We have moved beyond assessing risk for release and security classification that was the basic purpose of the static assessment instruments. With the dynamic information combined with the static to form risk-needs instruments we have maintained predictive accuracy and allowed for treatment planning and the assessment of offender change.

This list of achievements is truly impressive. Yet, there is much to do. We need to continue our search in identifying theoretically by relevant factors and develop measures to assess these factors. Although our prediction instruments will never reach perfection there is still tremendous room to improve predictive accuracy. Research on the assessment of responsivity factors and risk-needs factors specific to certain offender groups (e.g., sex offenders) must become a greater priority. Nevertheless, the momentum exists for continued improvements toward a more effective and humane correctional system.

1 Solicitor General Canada

2 For a more complete review of the evidence the interested reader is referred to Andrews and Bonta (1998).

3 Further discussion of the Risk Principle can be found in other chapters of this Compendium.


Andrews, D. A., & Bonta, J. (1998). The psychology of criminal conduct (2nd ed.). Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.

Andrews, D. A., & Bonta, J. (1995). The Level of Service Inventory -- Revised. Toronto, ON: Multi-Health Systems.

Andrews, D. A., & Wormith, J. S. (1984). Criminal sentiments and criminal behaviour. (Programs Branch User Report). Ottawa, ON: Solicitor General Canada.

Andrews, D. A., Wormith, J. S., & Kiessling, J. J. (1985). Self-reported criminal propensity and criminal behaviour: Threats to the validity of assessment and personality. (Programs Branch User Report). Ottawa, ON: Solicitor General Canada.

Bonta, J., Law, M., & Hanson, K. (1998). The prediction of criminal and violent recidivism among mentally disordered offenders: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 123, 123-142.

Gendreau, P., Little, T., & Goggin, C. (1996). A meta-analysis of the predictors of adult offender recidivism: What works! Criminology, 34, 575-607.

Grove, W. M., & Meehl, P. E. (1996). Comparative efficiency of informal (subjective, impressionistic) and formal (mechanical, algorithmic) prediction procedures: The clinical-statistical controversy. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 2, 293-323.

Hanson, R. K., & Harris, A. (1998). Dynamic predictors of sexual recidivism. (User Report No. 1998-01). Ottawa, ON: Solicitor General Canada.


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