Validity and Reliability of Risk Assessments in Law Enforcement

Explore the validity and reliability of risk assessments in law enforcement. Complete a research paper that builds on your current knowledge in the field of law enforcement and emphasizes the practice of forensic psychology.
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Law enforcement is about the discovery, deterrence, rehabilitation, or punishment of people who violate the rules and regulations set in a specific society (Belfrage & Strand, 2012). The courts, correction facilities, and the police all fall under this law enforcement category. Successful implementation of law enforcement policies requires a level of understanding of the landscape of legal application. When making judicial decisions, one of the considerations made is the risk of recidivism posed by the offender. When the risk is higher, the judicial officer must make a tough decision against the offender to deter future misconduct (Belfrage & Strand, 2012). To arrive at a scale of the risk posed by the defendant, the law enforcement agencies must have a way of assessing the risk level. The risk assessment instruments and techniques must give a level of confidence about their process and outcomes to have any sense of reliability. The discussion herein assesses the validity and reliability of different risk assessments in law enforcement.

Overview of Risk Assessment

The baseline of thought and ideation is that someone who has done an offense once is likely to do it again in the future. Nonetheless, different individuals pose different levels of risk of recommitting an offense. In the United States, 2 out of 3 people released from jail are rearrested within three years of release (Belfrage & Strand, 2012). This means that the risk of committing an offense again is very high. As such, the criminal justice system must adopt a data-driven approach to establish areas of intervention against subsequent offenses. Risk assessments are very common at the pretrial stage to inform decisions about release pending adjudication or jail detention. Further, correctional departments can use risk assessment to determine the appropriate programming for incarcerated individuals [Bureau of Justice Assistance - Department of Justice ]. Some of the decisions made by the criminal justice system on offenders are parole and probation. To determine the level of supervision needed for these individuals, probation and parole departments adopt the risk assessments approach. There are different risk assessment instruments whose validity and reliability are herein discussed.

Risk Assessment Instruments

Law enforcement agencies have a variety of risk assessment instruments (RAIs) to choose from. Some of the instruments include Public Safety Assessment (PSA), Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS), and actuarial risk assessment instruments [Understanding risk assessment instruments in criminal justice ]. Each of these instruments is meant to arrive at a conclusion of the risk score of an offender. The risk score is used to partially determine the judicial decision on the offender for the greater interest of society. COMPAS is one of the most commonly used risk assessments in the law enforcement sector.
PSA's application considers the primary factors as age and history of misconduct. The history of misconduct covers areas like failure to appear in court pretrial, new criminal arrest while on pretrial release, and new violent criminal arrest while on pre-trial release [Understanding risk assessment instruments in criminal justice ]. These are red flag areas that must be considered by the court when making an informed decision on how to deal with an offender. Therefore, the jury can make a decision on whether the individual should be released or remanded before trial. The one at a very high risk of committing further crimes and misconduct is implausible to be released pretrial, as they do not foster confidence in their behavior.
COMPAS is a decision support tool US courts use to predict the likelihood of recidivism among defendants. When the tool is applied, those in the criminal justice system can predict different outcomes and estimate violence, community failure, failing to appear for court sessions, and chances of rearrests [Understanding risk assessment instruments in criminal justice ]. COMPAS adopts a data-driven approach to making the decisions that protect society from repeat offenders. It may not always give the correct prediction, but it is based on science and facts.
In 2016, applying the COMPAS risk assessment instrument in Loomis v. Wisconsin raised a lot of legal heat when its validity and applicability were questioned . The petitioner, Loomis, contested the court's rulings on the premises that the case was not individualized, and the application of COMPAS jeopardized his chances of justice in the case. The jury had to come to its defense with the argument that the RAI's application was partial and did not inform the court's entire decision [Understanding risk assessment instruments in criminal justice ]. In this case, questions of transparency and lack of individualization bias arose. Therefore, this is one of the bases upon which one would want to discuss the validity and reliability of risk assessment in law enforcement. In the end, one will observe whether the process and its output inspire confidence or not.

Validity and Reliability of RAIs

The validity and reliability of the risk assessment instruments have come under scrutiny in the past. The questions that arise revolve around the ability of the instruments to give correct predictions and have a high success rate (Graham et al., 2019). As part of decision-making frameworks, the instruments should always have a level of reliability. The questions that arise about them cast shadows on their reliability. Experts question the consistency, efficiency, and effectiveness of RAIs in their criminal justice application (Graham et al., 2019). Raising the said questions brings about the question of whether the generalized conclusions from the instruments can lead to individual bias, inapplicability in specific cases, and unfair harm by the outputs.
Risk assessment instruments are usually actuarial algorithms, and they bear the technical problems in implementation [Understanding risk assessment instruments in criminal justice ]. In the question of validity and reliability, the instruments do not inspire confidence to preserve human oversight and careful discretion when implementing machine learning algorithms. The exposure to computerized systems other than human systems to make judgment on a person's chances of future crime is not considered effective in this case. Psychologists would mention that these people can be rehabilitated to become better members of society in the future. However, the risk assessment instruments may not factor in this possibility of change in behavior.
There are questions surrounding the transparency of the algorithms of risk assessment instruments, especially where high-stakes policies are involved. A judge who resorts to RAIs in sentencing must guarantee that the process of obtaining RAI results is transparent and clear [Understanding risk assessment instruments in criminal justice ]. There must be people accountable for the process and its outcomes. At times, these are elements that cannot be guaranteed, hence raising fundamental questions of bias. The interested parties must be made to understand the advantage of using this RAI process over human decision-making.
The criminal justice system is meant to be the metric for fairness and justice for all parties. Therefore, the risk assessment instrument utilized, such as COMPAS and PSA, could raise the concerns of potential harm to the parties when the output of the process is used. From this angle, the reliability of the RAIs cannot be guaranteed. People want to be fully involved in the justice system in matters relating to them. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that their needs and positions are factored in the risk assessment that condemns or frees them from the juggernaut of the law.
The question of bias is the most prominent in the application of RAIs. There are already challenges in the criminal justice system relating to bias against certain groups of people (Graham et al., 2019). It has been scientifically investigated in the US to show that the law enforcement structures in the country are biased against black people. Therefore, applying history in the application of the risk assessment instruments is an accentuation of the historical injustices in the criminal justice system. Juries have had to defend their impartiality and lack of individualization bias when using RAIs to make decisions. These instruments cannot be used exclusively.
The use of RAIs is not all gloom and inaccuracy. It has been successfully used in the past, and the application has been vindicated. Firstly, there is an element o of consistency that comes with the use of RAIs. Over time, the data collected and applied in the RAI application creates a trend for law enforcement officers and agencies. The trends are informative points of reference in decision-making. Secondly, the other merit of RAIs is improving efficiency. "Data-driven risk assessment can help practitioners make more efficient use of limited justice resources". Lastly, the use of RAIs brings effectiveness in the dispensation of justice. "Detailed risk assessments using empirically valid tools can help practitioners more effectively improve criminal justice outcomes like recidivism" [Bureau of Justice Assistance - Department of Justice ]. These merits make it a considerably appreciated path to take in the criminal justice process.
The merits and demerits of using RAIs in law enforcement are clearly illustrated. When an agency of law enforcement desires to use risk assessment, it is crucial to conduct a cost-benefit analysis on a case-by-case basis. This ensures that the decision is informed and justifiable. In a case where the drawbacks exceed the benefits, it is essential to avoid the risk assessment approach. It isn't easy to make a decision on whether the RAIs are valid and reliable. They are applied from a scientific viewpoint, which validates their use. Nevertheless, the field of application has many more dynamics than could be captured within the risk assessment process. They cannot be hailed as the best route in criminal justice nor condemned as inapplicable in law enforcement. All that is needed is to vindicate the application in specific cases.


Risk assessment in law enforcement remains a topic of debate. It is an approach introduced by custodians of the criminal justice system to enhance the delivery of justice to litigants. Nonetheless, it could at times achieve the contrary to what is s intended to do. There are merits associated with the application of RAIs, but there still exists a flurry of drawbacks. In many cases, the RAIs maintain consistency in the way they look at similar issues, and are effective from that perspective. Nonetheless, they are accused of individual bias since different offenders have various inspirations and perceive their lives different post-offence. Therefore, the RAIs may misjudge such people in a significant way. It is important to ensure that the application of RAIs is individually considered for specific cases and individuals to avoid the perceived bias that they carry.

References (APA 6th Ed.)

Belfrage, H., & Strand, S. (2012). Measuring the outcome of structured spousal violence risk assessments using the B-SAFER: Risk in relation to recidivism and intervention. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 30(4), 420-430.

Graham, L., Sahay, K., Rizo, C., Messing, J., & Macy, R. (2019). The validity and reliability of available intimate partner homicide and re-assault risk assessment tools: A systematic review. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 22(1), 18-40.
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August 09, 2023

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