Risk has been called the ‘world’s largest industry’ (Adams 1995: 31). We are faced with a bewildering array of risks in our everyday lives, ranging from health risks, crime risks, and those risks caused by climate change (Kemshall et al 2013), and we are constantly urged to ‘manage risk’. Responding to the risks posed by others and reducing risks to vulnerable people are all in a day’s work for busy practitioners in agencies such as social work, probation, and prison, or for those offering treatment and intervention to ‘risky groups’. Risk management is an activity many of us regularly engage in, both in our personal and professional lives. But what is involved in this complex activity?
Risk management is inextricably linked to risk assessment. The latter should clearly specify the risk factors that are present and their potential links with harmful outcomes; and identify any positive factors that have the potential to reduce or mitigate harm. Risk management requires the careful matching of interventions and treatments to the risk factors outlined, and the enhancement, or at least consolidation, of any positive factors that can play a role in mitigating risk. The failure to match interventions to risk factors plays a role in many risk management failures, including the failure to properly target those risky behaviours directly linked to harmful outcomes. Clarity of role and responsibilities, particularly in multi agency work, are also critical, with each agency making an agreed contribution to a focused, structured and clear plan, with delivery strategies and responsibilities clearly outlined with formal accountability structures to ensure delivery (Kemshall et al 2013).
Deciding thresholds of risk (low, medium, high for example), and particularly the thresholds of risk required to justify intrusive interventions including for example preventative or extended sentencing for sexual offenders, compulsory treatment programmes, and early interventions with ‘at risk families’ has been challenging. Such thresholding can be dependent upon risk assessment tools that struggle to neatly categorise persons into tiers of risk. This can be exacerbated by practitioner subjectivity, and the atmosphere of ‘precautionary principle’ (better safe than sorry) that can permeate practice particularly following risk management failures. The ethical, legal and moral challenges of preventative risk management, that is, risk management based upon preventing risks arising in the first place, have been acute (Titterton 2005). In the risk management of sexual offenders this has most often occurred in legal and policy debates about indeterminate preventative sentencing; community notification; vetting and barring; restrictive licence conditions; and compulsory treatment (Kemshall 2008).
Risk management measures for sex offenders in particular have attracted increasing evaluation of effectiveness. Cognitive Behavioural Treatment interventions are the most supported by research (Schmuker and Losel, 2008). Other emerging programmes and approaches have been less well evaluated. However, there is effectiveness evidence for Circles of Support and Accountability (McCartan et al, 2014); Multi-Systemic Therapy (MST) which has been robustly evaluated in relation to adolescent sexual offenders (Borduin et al, 2009) and is also found to be promising by Finkelhor (2009); and programmes based on the Good Lives Model or desistance approaches (e.g. The Better Lives Sex Offender Programme in the UK) seem to be making promising contributions to the positive management of risk and reintegration of individuals (Barnett and Mann, 2011; Scoones et al, 2012).
The evidence to date would indicate that a combination of risk management techniques is required for maximum effectiveness, comprising both protective and integrative measures (see Kemshall 2008: 132). These include an appropriate balance of restrictive measures, supportive and integrative measures, pro-social supervision, and effective treatment/programme interventions to be successful.
Hazel Kemshall, PhD
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Borduin, C.M., Schaeffer, C.M. and Heiblum, N. (2009) ‘A Randomized Clinical Trial of Multisystemic Therapy with Juvenile Sexual Offenders: Effects on Youth Social Ecology and Criminal Activity’, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology © 2009 American Psychological Association.
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Kemshall, H. (2008) Understanding the Community Management of High Risk Offenders. McGraw Hill/Open University Press.
Kemshall, H., Wilkinson, B. and Baker, K. (2013) Working with Risk. Skills for contemporary social work. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Kemshall, H, Kelly, G. Wilkinson, B. and Hilder, S. (2014) What works in work with sexual offenders: A literature review. Available at: http://www.somec-project.eu/default.asp?page_id=600&name=Effective management of high risk and dangerous offenders report; accessed 23 July 2015.
McCartan, K., Kemshall, H., Westwood, S., Solle, J., Mackenzie, G., Cattel, J. and Pollard, A. (2014) Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA): A Case File Review of Two Pilots. Analytical Summary. London: Ministry of Justice, available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/293400/cosa-research-summary.pdf; accessed 23 July 2015.
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