Purpose of Review
Risk assessment is one of the most ubiquitous tasks in the criminal justice system, informing virtually every decision made about offenders. This review, intended for researchers and practitioners, outlines some of the most important recent advances, emerging issues, and recommendations in sex offender risk assessment.
The underlying nature and purpose of risk scales is reviewed, with implications for how we should evaluate them. Limits of recidivism probability estimates are discussed, and efforts to advance a common language for describing risk levels are highlighted. Advances in risk communication and field validity are summarized. The utility of protective risk factors in risk assessments is debated. Emerging areas in assessing offender change and assessments with child pornography offenders are discussed.
Despite critical advances in the last few years, there are still important gaps in knowledge, particularly for risk communication, field implementation, offender change, and child pornography offenders.
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Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance •• Of major importance
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Helmus L, Hanson RK, Thornton D, Babchishin KM, Harris AJR. Absolute recidivism rates predicted by Static-99R and Static-2002R sex offender risk assessment tools vary across samples: a meta-analysis. Crim Justice Behav. 2012;39:1148–71. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854812443648.
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•• Hanson RK, Thornton D, Helmus LM, Babchishin KM. What sexual recidivism rates are associated with Static-99R and Static-2002R scores? Sex Abus. 2016;28:218–52. https://doi.org/10.1177/1079063215574710. This paper summarizes several years of research on the (in)stability of recidivism estimates for Static-99R and Static-2002R (a problem which is likely applicable to all actuarial scales). The paper includes detailed discussion of various options for dealing with the variability in recidivism estimates in applied reports, as well as their recommendations .
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Helmus LM Developing and validating a risk assessment scale to predict inmate placements in administrative segregation in the Correctional Service of Canada. Doctoral dissertation, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada 2015.
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• Hanson RK, Babchishin KM, Helmus LM, Thornton D, Phenix A. Communicating the results of criterion-referenced prediction measures: risk categories for the Static-99R and Static-2002R sexual offender risk assessment tools. Psychol Assess. 2017;29:582–97. https://doi.org/10.1037/pas0000371. The first application of the Justice Center standardized 5-level risk framework, applied to Static-99R and Static-2002R. Includes broad review of the issue of defining and interpreting risk levels .
•• Hanson RK, Bourgon G, McGrath RJ, Kroner D, D’Amora DA, Thomas SS, et al. A five-level risk and needs system: maximizing assessment results in corrections through the development of a common language, Justice Center Council of State Governments. Washington, DC; 2016. Summarizes a multi-year initiative from an international advisory group to develop a standardized framework for describing offender risk. The proposed five-level risk/needs system will likely become a dominant language in offender risk assessment .
• Olver ME, Mundt JC, Thornton D, Beggs Christofferson SM, Kingston DA, Sowden JN, et al. Using the violence risk scale–sexual offense version in sexual violence risk assessments: updated risk categories and recidivism estimates from a multisite sample of treated sexual offenders. Psychol Assess. Advance online publication 2017. https://doi.org/10.1037/pas0000538. Psychological Assessment. Application of the Justice Center standardized 5-level risk framework to VRS-SO, which includes static risk, dynamic risk, and treatment change information 2018.
Brankley AE, Helmus LM, Hanson RK (2017). STABLE-2007 evaluator workbook—revised 2017. Ottawa, ON.
Hilton NZ, Ham E, Nunes KL, Rodrigues NC, Frank C, Seto MC. Using graphs to improve violence risk communication. Crim Justice Behav. 2017;44:678–94.
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Hanson RK, Harris AJR, Scott T-L, Helmus L. Assessing the risk of sexual offenders on community supervision: the Dynamic Supervision Project. Ottawa: Public Safety Canada; 2007.
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Olver ME, Sowden JN, Kingston DA., Nicholaichuk TP, Gordon, A, Beggs Christofferson SM, Wong SCP. Predictive accuracy of Violence Risk Scale–Sexual Offender version risk and change scores in treated Canadian Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal sexual offenders. Sex Abus. 2018;30:254–275.
Babchishin KM (2013). Sex offenders do change on risk-relevant propensities: evidence from a longitudinal study of the ACUTE-2007. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Carleton University, Ottawa, ON.
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Hanson RK, Harris AJR, Helmus L, Thornton D. High risk sex offenders may not be high risk forever. J Interpers Violence. 2014;29:2792–813. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260514526062.
• Hanson RK, Harris AJR, Letourneau E, Helmus LM, Thornton D. Reductions in risk based on time offense free in the community: Once a sex offender, not always a sex offender. Psychol Public Policy Law. 2018. This study empirically models the relationship between time offence-free and sexual recidivism, including exploration of covariates and interactions. Structured methods of adjusting Static-99R and Static-2002R risk levels based on time free are provided. These findings are used to criticize long-term sexual offender risk management policies that are insensitive to initial risk and time free effects .
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Helmus LM. What makes a “good” risk assessment? A note on the importance of quality control [post on blog for Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment] 2015. Retrieved from http://sajrt.blogspot.ca/2015/11/what-makes-good-risk-assessment-note-on.html.
• Boccaccini MT, Rice AK, Helmus LM, Murrie DC, Harris PB. Field validity of Static-99/R scores in a statewide sample of 34,687 convicted sexual offenders. Psychol Assess. 2017;29:611–23. https://doi.org/10.1037/pas0000377. By far the largest field validity study in sex offender risk assessment. Interesting findings include improvements in predictive accuracy and interrater reliability over time. Also includes analyses of ethnicity, comparisons to other field validity studies (these effect sizes are among the lowest), and proposes Texas-specific recidivism norms for Static-99R, which are roughly half the rate of the current routine correctional norms for Static-99R .
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•• Babchishin KM, Hanson RK, VanZuylen H. Online child pornography offenders are different: a meta-analysis of the characteristics of online and offline sex offenders against children. Arch Sex Behav. 2015;44:45–66. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-014-0270-x. Contains several important findings about sex offenders against children, offenders whose only sexual offence is for child pornography, and mixed offenders. Findings support the importance of separating mixed offenders from those whose only sexual offence is for child pornography—they are meaningfully different groups .
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•• Seto MC, Eke AW. Predicting recidivism among adult male child pornography offenders: Development of the Child Pornography Offender Risk Tool (CPORT). Law Hum Behav. 2015;39:416–229. https://doi.org/10.1037/lhb0000128. Summarizes the development of the first (and thus far, only) risk scale developed for child pornography offenders. Although preliminary and based on a small sample size, this simple 7-item static scale appears to hold promise for child pornography offender risk assessment .
Eke AW, Helmus LM, Seto MC. A validation of the Child Pornography Offender Risk Tool (CPORT). Sexual Abus. Advance online publication 2018.
Eke AW, Seto MC. Scoring Guide for the Child Pornography Offender Risk Tool (CPORT). Unpublished document 2016. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/project/Child-Pornography-Offender-Risk-Tool-CPORT
I would like to thank Stacey Kosega and Elsemiek Griemink for their assistance with references.
Conflict of Interest
L. Maaike Helmus declares no conflict of interest.
Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent
This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.
This article is part of the Topical Collection on Sexual Disorders
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Helmus, L.M. Sex Offender Risk Assessment: Where Are We and Where Are We Going?. Curr Psychiatry Rep 20, 46 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-018-0909-8
- Risk assessment
- Sexual offenders
- Offender assessment