Subverting and negotiating risk assessment: a case study of the LSI in a Canadian youth custody facility.

Author:Ballucci, Dale
Position:Level of supervision inventory

Risk tools, complementing the new politics of punishment, have proliferated as an effective way for correctional agents to manage offenders and quickly became a fixture in Canadian (as well as the US and UK) correctional management (Cheliotis 2006; Ericson and Haggerty 1997; Hannah-Moffat 1999; O'Malley 1992). In Canada, the 1980s marked the beginning of a shift in mentalities around punishment that focused on fixing the behaviours that were associated with criminal activity (Hannah-Moffat 2001). Characterized as "correctional renewal," the strength of this approach grew throughout the 1990s (Moore 2007), creating a hospitable environment for the implementation of risk-assessment tools. (1) Part of this new managerial strategy aimed to address the "nothing works" campaign and to make decisions on evidence-based research that identified criminological factors most common to offender populations to better address offenders' needs. Whether risk assessment, as designed and practised today, effectively identifies rehabilitative needs is contested. I support the view that, in practice, despite the rhetoric, risk-assessment tools do not aim to merely effectively rehabilitate or punish but are instead a way to institute a process, one that identifies unruly individuals and groups (Simon and Feeley 1995). It is this process that I discuss in this article.

Despite risk-assessment tools' impact on the managerial process and their popularity, one cannot assume that correctional agents simply take up new managerial processes in a unified way. Hannah-Moffat, Maurutto, and Turnbull's (2009) most recent work in the area, examines Canadian correctional workers' use of risk-assessment tools to find that such agents subvert risk-assessment tools by employing several forms of discretion to moderate the effects of risk analysis in the governing process. As a result, Hannah-Moffat et al. (2009: 401) argue that practitioners' use of risk-assessment tools allows for obscuring discretionary power so as to "black box" the decision-making process. Such findings support examining the application of risk-assessment tools in various contexts to reveal how decisions are made in light of risk-assessment tools. This is an important line of inquiry given that an objective of risk-assessment tools is to streamline managerial decisions by removing the discretionary power of agents.

In this vein, my research examines the extent to which risk-assessment tools shape the management of young offenders in an open custody facility, which I call Youth House. Using interviews with both probation officers and local agents (who operate the open custody facility), I focus on how they deploy and subvert the Level of Supervision Inventory (LSI), a popular risk-assessment tool. I show what factors shape practitioners' decisions at times to embrace and at others to reject risk-assessment practices. My study is unique for two reasons: first, it focuses on young offenders, a population less studied; second, it brings attention to how local agents that govern youth on a day-to-day basis take up risk assessment. To date, most work pays attention to probation officers.

I find that the importance of risk scores in the management of young offenders differs between local agents and probation officers. I point to the various factors that shape the ways in which correctional agents use risk-assessment tools. These include knowledge of the risk-assessment tool design, of its history, and of its long-term effects on the management process. I show that local agents are critical of this tool and replace it with what I describe as a "holistic" approach to risk assessment. Probation officers, although less dedicated to and optimistic about the utility of risk-assessment tools, also incorporate their own strategies and risk-assessment rationales. I illustrate which, why, and how strategies are deployed and justified. Probation officers adhere to risk-assessment tools because it provides them with a way to rationalize and justify their decisions, something that is particularly important in situations where offenders act in unpredictable ways. The LSI, then, can be seen as a way for probation officers to externalize responsibility for their decisions. Local agents, on the other hand, find that the tools to stifle their management style and foresee potential harm in using risk-assessment tools for young female offenders.

Studies on risk-assessment tools and practices

Risk-assessment tools categorize information about an offender to predict the probability of violence and recidivism. The categories used in risk-assessment devices predetermine how correctional agents perceive and interpret types of criminal acts. For example, risk categories include specific behaviours and life circumstances that are used to assess the probability that an offender presents a risk to the community. The classifications imply that there is broad consensus about what information is pertinent to risk prediction; they are also a manifestation of the desire to produce objective value-free assessments. The survey design of risk-assessment tools has several effects. First, it prevents those using the tools from including or excluding particular classes of information. Second, it prohibits them from personally weighing the relevance of information. Third, it purportedly eliminates the possibility that an agent will let a clinical, professional, or personal opinion shape the assessment. However, despite the actuarial nature of these classification systems, studies show that risk scores involve the collection of various forms of knowledge (Rose 1999) that are organized and categorized by individual agents.

The implementation of risk-assessment tools coupled with the move toward actuarial justice suggests that a more punitive approach to offender management now prevails in Canadian corrections. However, research shows that the punitive attitudes of the public are a myth (Roberts and Doob 1990), suggesting that such policies do not reflect the reality of practice. Research by Matthews (2005) that examines the extent to which punitive policies actually affect practice, extends this argument. He found that members of the judiciary do not simply apply sentencing rules; instead, they work within law and policy to apply conditions and sentences they feel are appropriate. Such findings suggest that the imposition of a new managerial strategy such as the use of risk-assessment tools is not enough to change the practices of correctional agents. Even though risk-assessment tools aim to incapacitate offenders and insulate the process from agents' personal experiences and opinions, one cannot be sure what actually happens without investigating the practice of risk.

Despite the structural design of risk-assessment tools, several studies illustrate that risk is not the dominant organizing principle in the process of managing offenders. Several empirical studies of the place of risk in offender management provide evidence that pre-existing technologies and discourses, discretion, and the political context shape and mutate constructions of risk (Ballucci 2008; Hannah-Moffat 1999; Levi 2000; Moore 2000; O'Malley 1996). These studies support the claim that agents involved in calculating risk shape what factors, actions, or behaviours are included in risk calculations (Giddens 1996). Determining risk, then, does not simply involve the objective calculation of endorsed categories. Instead, it appears to include the discretionary power of agents who have opinions and mandates that affect risk assessment and management (Ballucci 2008). How risk is defined, therefore, includes not only the object of knowledge (the offender) and the assessment process but also the assessor's perception of risk, confirming the point that "the politics of risk is intrinsically a politics of knowledge, expertise and counter-expertise" (Goldblatt 1996: 199). Perceptions of risk, then, are products of an individual's knowledge (comprised of their training, experience, and opinions) and are expressed by asserting that such knowledge is superior to other knowledges.

Discretionary power is also evidenced in the practices of probation officers. The work of Kemshall (1998) on risk management draws attention to the exaggerated attention paid to risk assessment in correctional practices examinations. In her study of probationary work, she argues that although risk is the key organizing principle, discretionary power and autonomy are still present in assessment practice (Kemshall 1998). Robinson's (2002) study of probation officers in England echoes these findings; she found that risk management among probation officers has resulted in the application of two modes of governance that distinguish which offenders are a risk to the public.

Furthermore, in a study on the decision making of chief probation officers in England and Wales, Mair (2004) found that motivation and support for program initiatives shape the delivery of programs. Lynch's 1998 study of California probation field officers also found that agents subvert management's directions to act as actuarial risk managers and instead apply an intuitive approach (Lynch 1998). Each of these studies shows that probation officers, while working within their correctional mandates, deploy strategies to subvert management direction. In an ethnographic study of social workers in Scottish courts, McNeill, Burns, Halliday, Hutton, and Tata (2009) found that, although policies have changed, agents are not fully implementing these changes because it goes against their own judgement. Instead, social workers use their previous knowledge of their probationers when deciding on recommendations for violations of their parole. These studies illustrate that, although risk-assessment tools were designed to limit discretion, the actual practice of agents is to find ways to exercise their professional judgement and...

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