Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Race, Bias, and Risk Assessment

By David S. Prescott, LICSW, & Kieran McCartan, Ph.D.

Note: We are grateful to Tyffani Dent for her contributions to the discussions that led to this post.

On August 1, 2014, in a speech about risk assessment processes, then–United States Attorney General Eric Holder said of the available measures:

Although these measures were crafted with the best of intentions, I am concerned that they may inadvertently undermine our efforts to ensure individualized and equal justice.  By basing sentencing decisions on static factors and immutable characteristics – like the defendant’s education level, socioeconomic background, or neighborhood – they may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities that are already far too common in our criminal justice system and in our society.

His points were well-taken and yet not without considerable push back. The most common response at the time was that the existing tools certainly outperformed the unstructured judgment that in turn was wildly susceptible to bias. This point, too, was a good one. Earlier this Autumn, Jennifer Skeem, associate dean of research and associate professor of social welfare and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, stated in a major address to the National Forum on Criminal Justice that extensive review of post-conviction risk assessments of federal convicts found “no evidence of predictive bias by race.”

Perhaps that’s one of the issues we need to address first; many aspects of racism take place beyond the awareness of those who work within the structures where racism is found.

As outside observers who have tried to watch developments in risk assessment closely, there is no question that the right risk assessment methods can be useful, but we question whether there isn’t evidence of inherent bias available right in plain view. For example:

-  It’s well-established that people of color are more likely to be arrested, often as a result of over-policing. They are incarcerated at a rate of more than five times that of white people. 

-  It’s also established that people of color are less likely to be referred to diversion programs, and can be subject to bias even within that referral process. All of these points can result in higher scores on risk assessment instruments compared with whites, especially against a backdrop of true crime rates remaining unknown. 

-  Likewise, racial disparities can be found in the bail system. This fact often goes missing in broader discussions of racial disparities in the legal system.

-  Obviously, not all risk assessment methods are created equally; many rely on items that lend themselves, more and less, to racial bias. Items related to family (for example, past family incarceration) and community stability scored outside of an understanding of their context may not accurately reflect a person’s propensity to commit crime.

In some circumstances, further questions arise as to whether many instruments aren’t more effective at predicting who will be arrested than predicting who will commit crimes.

People of color tend to experience intersectionality more than white counterparts, which means that their different socio-political and individuals labels put them at risk of being a victim of crime and of, potentially, being someone who could commit a crime. In addition, people of colour, sometimes because of factors crystalized through intersectionality, are more likely to experience trauma as well as adverse experiences; which matters in how we work with and respond to them. This means that there is an opportunity for better primary, secondary, tertiary & quaternary prevention (see previous blog). However, because of the socio-political aspects of race, vulnerability, trauma, economics, and access to social care in America (and worryingly so in the UK as well) issues related to intersectionality, race and crime never gets truly understood or dealt with.  A clear example of this is a recent report that indicates that UN peacekeepers from multiple countries, of multiple races committed systematic sexual abuse while in Haiti. Experiences of sexual abuse, whether through victimisation or perpetration, does not have a race determinate; but race does play a significant role, though intersectionality and socio-economic-political factors, in the way that we define, prevent and respond to sexual abuse.

Of course, we are not the first, by far, to address this and related topics. We do, however, believe that professionals can become more effective by studying the myriad issues involved that this blog post is only barely able to touch upon. Despite the excellent advances made by our risk assessment instruments, very serious challenges remain.  

Monday, December 16, 2019

A Statement from the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers

As an organization, our mission is to prevent sexual abuse. We believe every individual has the right to live free from sexual victimization. We believe that people who commit sexual abuse should be held accountable for their actions and supported in their rehabilitation, while supporting the victims of sexual abuse.

ATSA promotes evidence-based treatment and guidance for individuals at risk of committing abuse and for those who have abused others. Our ethical standards demand high ethical behavior and professional integrity among our members, without exception.

We know that individuals who sexually abuse others cross educational, socioeconomic, gender, and ethnic lines, and are frequently respected members of families and communities. 

On December 9th, ATSA learned that Dr. Kurt Bumby had been charged with sexual abuse. He has been a respected member of ATSA, and a past leader in the organization and in the broader sexual abuse research and treatment community. Once we learned of the charges, the Executive Board immediately suspended Dr. Bumby’s membership pending the outcome of the case.

These allegations have shocked and saddened all of us at ATSA. Like any community, we are dealing with the emotional and practical impacts of this situation. We are experiencing the ripple effects of allegations of abuse and how it impacts everyone involved in these situations. 

Our mission to end sexual abuse will continue. And, as always, we encourage you to be part of this effort.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Shining a light on sexual violence helps prevent it

 A statement from the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers

One of the most effective ways to prevent sexual harassment and violence is to shine a light on it.

When organizations are transparent about incidents of sexual abuse, they help everyone understand the factors that can lead to sexual abuse and how to develop systems and processes to prevent that abuse.

Uber’s recent release of sexual abuse data is an example of that. The level of transparency Uber has displayed is a credit to their commitment to end sexual harassment and assault. By providing this information, they are taking a step toward preventing future victimization.

We already know some of the factors that can encourage perpetration – isolated working conditions, significant power and pay disparities, hierarchical organizations that discourage reporting or lack independent investigatory channels, and male-dominated fields. The data from Uber may enable us to shine more light on these and other factors that contribute to sexual assault in the workplace.

Preventing sexual assault and future victimization will make a significant difference in many people’s lives. The human harm caused by sexual abuse that goes unaddressed by employers is significant. It can derail careers, create a ripple effect of financial difficulties, cause mental and physical health problems, and result in long-term traumatic impacts on the person who was abused.

Businesses that work to prevent and address sexual abuse not only save these human costs, they also save money.

Data from FY2017 found that workplace sexual harassment and assault settlements negotiated by the EEOC cost U.S. companies $46.3 million that year. Because the EEOC is involved in only a small percentage of such cases, actual total litigation costs in the United States are much higher. Studies also show that businesses pay anywhere per case from $75,000 for out-of-court settlements to $200,000 and up for jury settlements. Companies also lose money through reduced staff productivity; higher employee turnover; increased insurance costs; and, occasionally, boycotts. And these economic costs are not limited to the United States. They are a worldwide issue.

By being open about the sexual abuse their drivers and passengers have experienced, Uber is giving us the information we need to help prevent these types of assaults. This is an excellent example of social and corporate responsibility that others would be wise to follow.

For more information about the factors that can lead to sexual abuse and how to prevent abuse, visit

For additional details about the costs of abuse, see the following sources:

Friday, December 6, 2019

Stop it Now! Scotland: going upstream to prevent Child Sexual Abuse

By Stop it Now Scotland!

Stop It Now! Scotland is a small team based in Edinburgh who works with adults and adolescents who have sexually abused children, viewed child sexual exploitation material or who are worried about their sexual thoughts and feelings towards children. This week we have launched an online resource that distils what we have learned from those who offend or at risk of offending, providing information for communities in Scotland and the professionals who serve them about the practical things we can all do to prevent child sexual abuse in the first place.

The aim of the resource is to help adults who are protective to become more effective in their efforts to prevent sexual abuse, and to help those who present a risk of harm to children to make safer choices.

Upstream was funded by the Scottish government and based on a CD-ROM (remember them!) we developed in 2011 to help build the capacity of individuals and communities to prevent child sexual abuse in Scotland.  As time moved on it became apparent that a CD-ROM was no longer fit for purpose. But also we reached a stage where we needed to comprehensively refine and strengthen the Toolkit, properly test and evaluate its fitness as a practical resource to prevent abuse before it might occur, and align us to effectively deliver (in a systematic and evidenced way) primary prevention of child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation in Scotland.

It was at this point that we started to develop the online resource. Whilst the content of the existing toolkit was an important ‘starting point’ in our work we also wanted to include more information and resources to help in the changing task of keeping children safe. A big part of this is strengthening the capacity of adults to safeguard children and also building the resilience of communities to keep children safe.  We also want to help anyone who is around children to identify the risky behaviour of themselves or others to allow them to intervene and prevent child sexual abuse before it occurs. We wanted to include materials on the prevention of harmful sexual behaviour in childhood and adolescence. And we wanted to ground all of this in bystander theory – the idea that there are practical things we can do to make a difference when we encounter behaviours that are inappropriate or potentially harmful.

The new resource is broken down into five sections. These are Learn, Identify, Prevent, Act and Engaging Communities. There is also a Get Help section for anyone in a situation that needs immediate action.

The resource gives practical advice based on a wide range of scenarios and frequently asked questions that often come up during our work. “What if I don’t like the way my uncle is playing with my daughter?” or “What are the warning signs that a child is being abused” or “How do I make my church group safer for children?”. We have tried to make the language as accessible as possible without losing some of the detail and nuances of the complex world that we live in. The Engaging Communities section contains a range of resources that professionals can use when engaging the public about prevention.

It was developed specifically for a Scottish audience but we hope this resource can be used more widely. Have a look, and if it is useful, share the resource with colleagues, friends and family or tell people about it on social media. The message of Upstream is simple; together we can protect the next child from harm.