First-of-Their-Kind National Guidelines Fill Critical Gap to Advance Fairness and Transparency in Post-Conviction Risk and Needs Assessment

August 29, 2022

An important and contentious debate surrounds the use of risk and needs assessment instruments in the criminal justice system. Although criminal justice agencies in all 50 states use these instruments, they have been met with a host of criticisms in recent years.   

Post-conviction risk and needs assessment instruments can be used to inform efforts that support the success of a person who is incarcerated, on probation, or on parole. But many fear that using these instruments can result in people of color facing stricter criminal justice oversight on the basis of race.  

Civil rights advocates, politicians, news outlets, and researchers have pointed to situations where people of color were more likely to be labeled as “high risk” than White people. This is especially concerning given the well-documented reality that racial disparities infect the criminal justice system at every point—from arrest to release from prison and beyond.   

Other critics note a lack of transparency. Companies that produce the assessment instruments often keep their algorithms under wraps. On top of that, people who are being assessed rarely receive information about these assessments and how they work.   

On the other hand, there is a strong case that, when developed and implemented well, risk and needs assessments can support criminal justice agencies to make better decisions about which services and supports to give to which people. 

Research has clearly shown that we must focus services and supervision on the people most likely to benefit from them to promote their rehabilitation and public safety. Risk and needs assessments help criminal justice agencies do that.   

We also know that structured assessments can be more accurate and less biased than human judgment, but only if the assessments are implemented in ways that are confirmed to be accurate and fair. However, few agencies have evaluated the accuracy of their assessments by race, ethnicity, or gender.  

Until now, no national guidelines existed for agencies to ensure that these post-conviction assessments are accurate, fair, transparent, and effectively communicated and used. With guidance and support from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs’ Bureau of Justice Assistance, The Council of State Governments Justice Center has worked with a group of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to develop practical guidelines that advise criminal justice agencies on the use of risk and needs assessments.  

Advancing Fairness and Transparency: National Guidelines for Post-Conviction Risk and Needs Assessment are designed to promote the following four principles:  

  • Accuracy is essential to ensure that assessments are completed and applied as intended to estimate recidivism and inform case decisions and planning. Our guidelines offer a number of concrete strategies to improve accuracy, including reviews of the instruments being used, booster trainings and case audits for staff who conduct the assessments, and validation studies—all of which should occur on a regular basis.  
  • Fairness is critical to protect against biased decisionmaking and disparate outcomes. Considering the consequences that assessment results can have on the people being assessed, we recommend stringent measures that test for predictive bias and disparate impact. Other measures include applying assessment results to ensure that people receive only the type and number of services and supervision that are needed to support their rehabilitation. We also advise that agencies avoid using results to lengthen a sentence beyond the maximum punishment allowable for the offense(s) of conviction. 
  • Transparency is key to ensuring that policymakers, community members, and people who are being assessed understand the strengths and limitations of the instruments. Among other recommendations, our guidelines advise criminal justice agencies to develop a written communication policy to share with stakeholders and enhance engagement with the general public about what these instruments are and how they are applied.  
  • Effectiveness in the communication and use of assessment results is crucial for ensuring that they are properly understood and used by all decisionmakers, including judges, prosecutors, and agency staff who conduct the assessments. Our guidelines advise communicating results with an eye toward a person’s needs rather than solely their likelihood of recidivism, contextualizing the results with information about the case at hand, and developing templates for consistent communication.  

Every agency using post-conviction risk and needs assessment instruments should meet these new guidelines. To learn more, check out our FAQs for Administrators and read the guidelines. 

 

BJA logo

This project was supported by Grant No. 2019-ZB-BX-K002 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. 

About the author


Image for:
Lahiz Tavárez
Senior Policy Analyst, State Initiatives
Lahiz Tavárez administers the CSG Justice Center’s internal data management system and oversees internal data collection and reporting processes. As part of her role, she develops and implements systems and process guidance to improve internal data tracking and communicates that
...
information to staff through consistent resource development and leading of staff trainings. Additionally, she works on projects centered on risk and needs assessment communication and implementation guidance. In previous roles at the CSG Justice Center, Lahiz developed networks of community services for people returning to the community after incarceration, provided technical assistance to recipients of Second Chance Act grants, supported projects centered on improving risk communication in corrections and reentry of people convicted of sexual offenses, and worked to expand the Reentry Services Directory. Prior to joining the CSG Justice Center, she interned at the New York State Assembly as a legislative assistant, as well as with Albany County’s Crime Victim and Sexual Violence Center (CVSVC), acting as a victim advocate at Albany Criminal Court on behalf of CVSVC, and at SUNY Albany’s University Police Department (UAPD), also participating in UAPD’s Advisory Committee. Lahiz received a BA in criminal justice from SUNY University at Albany and is completing her MA in forensic psychology at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Read More
  • Image for:
    Katy Albis
    Content Project Manager, Communications and External Affairs
    Katy Albis serves as lead editor on a variety of CSG Justice Center content, with a focus on corrections, reentry, and behavioral health, as well as campaigns and special initiatives. She also maintains the CSG Justice Center’s editorial style guide.
    ...
    Previously, Katy was an associate editor in the Higher Education Group at Oxford University Press, where she managed the editorial process for sociology and gender studies titles. She has a BA in classical languages and Africana studies from New York University and an MA in humanities from the University of Chicago.
    Read More
  • You might also be interested in