Kelley, S. M., Ambroziak, G., Thornton, D., & Barahal, R. M. (2019). How Do Professionals Assess Sexual Recidivism Risk? An Updated Survey of Practices. Sexual Abuse. Online First
Forensic evaluators may be assisted by comparing their use of instruments with that of their peers. This article reports the results of a 2017 survey of instrument use by forensic evaluators carrying out sexual recidivism risk assessments. Results are compared with a similar survey carried out in 2013. Analysis focuses primarily on adoption of more recently developed instruments and norms, and on assessment of criminogenic needs and protective factors, and secondarily, on exploring factors related to differences in evaluator practice. Findings indicate that most evaluators have now adopted modern actuarial instruments, with the Static-99R and Static-2002R being the most commonly used. Assessment of criminogenic needs is now common, with the STABLE-2007 being the most frequently used instrument. Evaluators are also increasingly likely to consider protective factors. While a majority of evaluators uses actuarial instruments, a substantial minority employs Structured Professional Judgment (SPJ) instruments. Few factors discriminated patterns of instrument use.
Could you talk us through where the idea for the research came from?
Contemporary surveys of practitioners who complete sexual risk assessments are important for researchers, evaluators, and decision-makers. Researchers benefit from staying informed of what methodologies are actually being implemented in practice in order to consider whether additional research or more effective strategies of communicating research results are needed. Decision-makers such as courts need to have objective data to help guide their understanding of what results should be taken under consideration and how much weight it should be given (e.g., admissibility issues). My colleagues and I also noticed that evaluators in different settings/jurisdictions tended to develop their own norms and culture regarding what is considered common risk assessment methodology, but we wondered how that might translate into the larger field. We also found that while other surveys provided useful information, we were interested in factors that had not yet been examined such as use of old versus new static instruments, use of criminogenic needs instruments, and how evaluators chose to communicate the results of such instruments.
What kinds of challenges did you face throughout the process?
We initially had the idea to conduct a survey in 2013, but we chose to add a few survey questions to a larger study on evaluator decision-making that we were conducting at the time. As a result, the information we obtained was fairly limited. However, the process allowed us to better consider the questions we wanted to know, and we set to work designing an independent research project. Designing survey questions is actually more difficult than it appears. In 2017, we spent a considerable amount of time designing the survey and deliberating on the wording of the questions. Even so, after the data was collected and analyzed we recognized the need for additional questions or how existing questions could have been re-worded to better understand the results. Obtaining participation is also a challenge with online surveys. Getting formal approval to utilize the ATSA-listserv and American Psychology – Law Society (AP-LS) email distribution list was important in achieving our results. However, future surveys will need to get formal approval to reach international forensic professional groups as well.
What do you believe to be the main things that you have learnt about the professional practices in assessing Sexual Recidivism Risk?
Overall, most practitioners are modifying their methodology to keep up with research advances including using newer static and criminogenic needs instruments as well as communicating risk results based on current norms. However, there continues to be practitioners using older static instruments (e.g., RRASOR) as well as outdated norms associated with these instruments. Divergence was notable in how evaluators appear to be choosing the Static-99R normative group (i.e., Routine/Complete vs. High Risk/Needs groups) and their use of a criminogenic needs measure to assess for dynamic risk factors and treatment change. Within the sample, about 22% reported not using a criminogenic needs instrument due to concerns that the research was insufficient to support its use and concerns about the adequacy of the norms. Similarly, of those who reported that measuring treatment gains was relevant to their work, a third did not use a formal instrument to assess for treatment progress. This divergence did not appear clearly related to educational activities, years of experience, and freedom in selecting their own instruments. However, the tendency to only use the Routine/Complete Static-99R norms was associated with evaluators working in private practice regardless of the setting in which they worked (e.g., outpatient vs. forensic commitment).
Now that you’ve published the article, what are some implications for practitioners?
While we were unable to ascertain why some practitioners continue to use older measures and norms, we did identify concerns related to new measures of dynamic risk and treatment need. Frequent concerns were related to a lack of research demonstrating their validity and reliability, concerns about the instruments’ norms, and the belief that no existing measure can predict a reduction of sexual recidivism due to treatment change. Ultimately, the decision to adopt measures and make changes to one’s methodology will be based on demands of the environment and evaluator standards, and this will be different between jurisdictions and practitioners. Our concern is the possible tendency of overlooking or discounting new research findings and becoming comfortably “stuck” in old practices. As such, we emphasize that a good standard of practice would involve making a priori determinations of what one would need (e.g., research or norms), staying informed of research advances, and then changing methodology once the predetermined criteria are met. Such determinations should also be consistent with professional guidelines (i.e., Section 6.08 of the 2014 ATSA Adult Practice Guidelines). Use of forensic checklists can be important in determining when to start or stop using an instrument. I strongly suggest utilizing a checklist or table to track the pros and cons for each instrument under consideration, and to modify this document over time as research advances. I have provided an example of what I termed an Informed Decision-Making Table, which readers will be able to retrieve by contacting me at .