Journal Issue: Juvenile Justice Volume 18 Number 2 Fall 2008
Assessing Risk and Amenability to Treatment
The model of juvenile justice that Scott and I propose requires that the justice system be able both to make distinctions between offenders based on whether they represent a serious threat to public safety because of their risk for recidivism and to match juveniles effectively with appropriate sanctions and interventions. Because the juvenile justice system is charged not only with punishing the guilty and protecting the public, but also with rehabilitating young offenders, practitioners working within the system must make judgments about offenders' risk of future violence and their likely amenability to treatment.
Critics of contemporary juvenile justice policy and practice frequently bemoan the disappearance of individualized decision making by judges, prosecutors, and probation officers, but as Edward Mulvey and Anne-Marie Iselin, both of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, note in the second article, professionals working within the juvenile justice system are constantly asked to make predictions about offenders' future behavior and to assess their likely responsiveness to various types of sanctions and treatments. Mulvey and Iselin ask whether these decision makers now have the ability to make valid and reliable individualized assessments; they also review evidence about how best to make such assessments.
There is no doubt that the use of objective risk assessment tools by juvenile justice practitioners has become more prevalent, but as the authors point out, the sharp contrast made in academic circles between clinical and actuarial prediction does not exist in the real world of juvenile justice decision making. In fact, many decision makers use idiosyncratic amalgams of the two forms of prediction that often combine the worst of both, so that they base decisions on actuarial tools of unproven reliability or validity and on unstructured intuitive judgment that is easily subject to bias. The authors conclude that combining clinical and actuarial decision making is in fact a reasonable approach to assessment, but that decision makers need to be aware that within both of these realms, instruments and methods vary tremendously in their effectiveness. According to their review, the decision-making sciences have made great progress in assessing risk and amenability, but that progress has not been reflected in changes in practice. The decision facing practitioners, then, is not how to choose between using an actuarial risk assessment system or relying on subjective clinical assessment, but, rather, how to combine them in a systematic and structured way that takes advantage of the new knowledge base.