Over the last decade, jurisdictions across the country have increasingly implemented actuarial tools to aid decision making in the juvenile justice system. Simply put, these research-based instruments systematically collect and combine information about a youth to predict a certain outcome, like recidivism, failing to appear in court or misconduct while placed in a residential facility. Tools such as risk and need assessments, disposition matrices, detention risk assessment instruments and risk of institutional violence tools assist professionals to determine which youth are most at risk for the outcome in question and the optimal interventions to minimize that risk.
Actuarial tools have numerous benefits. When it comes to forecasting recidivism, for example, we know from the research that system officials do a far better job when aided by these tools as opposed to exclusively relying on subjective factors. When validated and implemented with fidelity, these instruments can help staff to target resources toward those youth most likely to benefit from system involvement and promote equity in the juvenile justice system. Given studies indicating that youth’s perceptions of fairness positively affect their level of engagement with staff and services, it is especially important that we make consistent and objective decisions that impact their lives.
Despite the compelling reasons to use these tools, not all system staff and stakeholders are immediately enamored with them, and this can lead to significant challenges with effective implementation. Judges, attorneys, probation and corrections officials may view the instruments as impersonal, antithetical to the goals of the justice system or as an affront to their professional judgment.
Some scholars have linked this resistance to the longstanding ethos of individualized justice within the juvenile justice system. Since its inception, they argue, the system has prioritized personalized services and supervision at the discretion of the courts. Thus, introducing tools to guide decision making in this respect may be interpreted as an infringement on that discretion.
In order to achieve positive outcomes for system-involved youth, however, it is critical that the juvenile justice field continue to use actuarial tools to drive decision making and to implement the tools with fidelity. Navigating and overcoming staff resistance to the introduction of such instruments is challenging, but it can be done. In these circumstances, several strategies should be employed.
3 steps to take
First, system officials must regularly train and educate staff, partners and stakeholders as to why these instruments are so important. It is vital for them to understand, for instance, the central role that risk and need assessments play in an approach grounded in the research-based risk-need-responsivity (RNR) model. RNR teaches us that juvenile justice approaches must target those youth most likely to reoffend (the risk principle), address the factors that make a youth most likely to recidivate (the need principle) and deliver services in a manner that will resonate with the youth (the responsivity principle), accounting for factors like learning style and mental health.
At the core of this approach is the ability to derive important information about the youth and family through the risk and need assessment process. Ongoing training should focus on the body of evidence indicating that outcomes improve when using actuarial tools and should target a wide array of stakeholders from different disciplines (e.g., judiciary, prosecutors’ offices, defenders’ offices, probation, corrections) and ranks (e.g., front-line staff, supervisors, management).
Second, agencies should regularly collect data on outcomes resulting from the use of the tools in their jurisdictions. Local data indicating improved public safety and positive youth outcomes can be a powerful strategy in demonstrating the utility of the tools to those who might otherwise be skeptical. For many systems, this may require enhancing existing capacity for data collection on youth demographics, offenses, risk levels, type of supervision and services received, recidivism and other positive youth outcomes.
Indeed, this is the approach that the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice has taken in implementing its research-based Disposition Matrix that guides decision making regarding supervision level and service delivery for those youth who have been adjudicated. Supported by a skilled research department, the agency analyzes how recidivism is impacted when the court follows the Matrix’s recommendations and publishes this data on its website. Evaluations of the Matrix have found that recidivism is minimized when judges adhere to the optimal disposition recommended by the instrument.
Third, in rolling out any tool, systems must never completely eliminate the role of professional judgment. While these instruments offer the best chance to accurately predict outcomes, they are not crystal balls that can guarantee the future with 100 percent certainty. There will always be situations where departing from the recommended course of action will be warranted.
Accordingly, tools must allow for professional discretion. Typically this is supported through an override process that allows staff to adjust risk levels or recommendations based upon agreed-upon set of parameters. Data collection is important again here to monitor inappropriate or excessive use of professional overrides, which can compromise the integrity of the tool and can result in other undesired outcomes such as perpetuating racial and ethnic disparities or misallocating resources. In general, however, the message to staff must be that their professional discretion and experience are valued and essential, and that the tool is designed to enhance decision making but not to supplant their authority.
Finally, agencies must ensure that the actuarial tool used is validated and implemented with fidelity. Staff and stakeholders will quickly lose confidence in the instrument if it does not accurately predict the outcome it is focused on or if staff do not utilize the tool as intended. To this end, systems must routinely conduct validation studies on the tool and employ quality assurance strategies to make certain that staff are collecting, entering, and interpreting data correctly and actually using the information to drive decisions. Policies clarifying practice expectations, regular case reviews and booster trainings can assist in this regard.
Overcoming resistance to the use of actuarial tools undoubtedly requires thought, time and resources. Yet given the promise these tools offer for enhancing outcomes for youth and communities, these are investments that systems would be wise to make.
Hannah Oppermann is a research assistant at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform. She is currently pursuing her Master of Arts in public anthropology at American University.
Michael Umpierre is a faculty member at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University and senior research fellow at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.
Shay Bilchik is the founder and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Safety.