Future Thinking on Risk Assessment and Risk Management

May 26, 2020
Hazel Kemshall
Professor of Community and Criminal JusticeDe Montfort University

The current Coronavirus pandemic is probably making many of us think about risk in our personal as well as our professional lives, with risk literally now very close to home.  This provides a moment when we can reflect on risk and how best to assess and manage it going forward.  In this blog I am going to highlight three key areas:

  • Evidence-based and technological approaches to risk assessment
  • The potential over-lap of desistance work and risk practice
  • The link between risk management and public safety.

In a world where ‘risk’ has been described as the largest industry (Adams, 1998) and risk assessment tools proliferate and vie for practitioner attention it is critical that assessment tools are well rooted in the available evidence.  The current pandemic has highlighted the important role of evidence in guiding policy and practice responses to risk, but has also raised the question of what constitutes robust evidence, and how evidence is interpreted and used.  The selection of rigorous and effective risk assessment tools is one area where evidence and its availability to practitioners is key.  One example of robust evidence use is the Risk Management Authority’s “Risk Assessment Tool Evaluation Directory” (RATED) (https://www.rma.scot/research/rated/).  RATED outlines clear criteria for judging and comparing risk assessment tools, with links to key data and peer reviewed evaluations.  It is updated on a regular basis and aids policy makers, senior managers and practitioners in their adoption of risk assessment tools, focusing on effectiveness and the ‘right tool for the right job’.

Increasingly assessment tools are designed for computer use.  This presents challenges because such computerisation often presents assessment as a linear, narrative experience for practitioners.  However, much research shows that assessments are often ‘confirmatory’, pursued in a way that merely confirms what practitioners already think; or in a more investigatory mode where practitioners explore judgements and hypotheses, and refine them through testing and gaining further information (the ‘practice wisdom’ approach).  Computerised tools don’t usually take this into account, and are rarely underpinned by ‘Decision Theory’, that is, a thorough understanding of how decisions actually get made.  This results in a dissonance between how practitioners want to use assessment tools, and how they are required to use them.  More recent approaches have attempted to consider ‘Decision Trees’, enabling a greater focus on exploratory approaches to assessment rather than set menus which have to be worked through. Such approaches have to be embedded in a sound knowledge base across the workforce.  At the end of the day there is no substitute for good decision making underpinned by sound evidence.

Desistance and risk are sometimes presented as opposing approaches.  In reality this is rarely the case, and in 2008 I argued for a “blended approach” bringing the two together. This encourages practitioners to focus on: desistance, pro-social supervision, and holistic risk assessment- resulting in an integrated approach that balances control with rehabilitation. The process and journey of desistance is now better understood, and assessments that focus on motivation to desist as well as to offend are likely to improve interventions. Self-risk management and the acquisition or skills by offenders to enhance their transition out of crime are now emphasised, with strengths based work focusing on enhancing strengths and protective factors.  Desistance and risk are not mutually exclusive and can be combined to provide both safety and reintegration to the benefit of both public and offender.

Finally, the desired outcome of all risk management and of all interventions is safety, individual, community and public safety, and safety for the offender going forward.  If practitioners focus on safety, and always ask: “Is what I am doing today contributing to safety?”, then precious resources including practitioner time will be used more effectively.  Safety production also mitigates against a default position that everything is too risky.  Too often the phrase ‘he/she is too dangerous’, or that is ’too risky’ is stated.  If the question becomes: “How can we do this safely?” then more defensible decisions are likely to follow, and where something cannot be done safely sufficient evidence and justification is produced to support this.  Currently in the Coronavirus pandemic we are seeing numerous “how can we do this safely” debates going on, with very public tests of evidence and scrutiny of the arguments made.  One key lesson from the pandemic experience is that all risk brings scrutiny, and evidence-based, defensible practice is the key.

Professor Hazel Kemshall,

[email protected]

Suggested reading:

H. Kemshall (2008) Understanding the Community Management of High Risk Offenders.  Open University Press/McGraw-Hill.

Kemshall, H. Wilkinson, B. and Baker, K. (2013) Working with risk. The Social Work Skills Series. Polity Press.

Kemshall, H. (2018) The rise of risk in probation work: historical reflections and future speculations. In: P. Priestley and M.Vanstone (eds) The Rehabilitation of Probation. Palgrave.

Kemshall, H. (2019) A critical review of risk assessment policy and practice since the 1990s, and the contribution of risk practice to contemporary rehabilitation of offenders. In: Fergus McNeill et al, (eds.) The Routledge Companion to Rehabilitative Work in Criminal Justice.  London: Routledge.

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