There are a number of reasons why an offender may be assessed while they are incarcerated. An offender’s likelihood of causing problems while incarcerated, treatment needs, and likelihood of escaping are all examples of why an offender might be assessed. Just as there are a number of reasons to assess an offender there are also a number of ways in which an offender can be assessed. The method used to assess the offender should be appropriate for the responsivity of the offender, how the assessment is being conducted and how the information is intended to be used. If an offender’s dangerousness while incarcerated is to be assessed than an assessment designed for recidivism once released should not be administered, for example (Van Voorhis, Braswell & Lester, 2007).
There are a number of purposes and principles of effective classification that are used to describe what a particular principle has been designed to assess and how that assessment should be used to the benefit of the offender, and in some instances the general public. The risk principle is used to assess an offender’s likelihood of harming other offenders while incarcerated or the general public upon release. The risk principle can be used to classify an offender as requiring minimum-, medium-, or maximum-security confinement or supervision. This principle is particularly important because of the recent findings that low-risk offenders do not benefit from intensive supervision or other treatment programs designed for high-risk and medium-risk offenders (Bonta, 2002; Van Voorhis et al., 2007).
The needs principle states that an offender’s basic needs should be met, whether it is while they are incarcerated or while undergoing a treatment program. As Andrews and Bonta point out, needs that may make an offender more likely to reoffend should be addressed before needs that have not been linked, or are not reasonably associated with, future offending (Van Voorhis et al., 2007). These criminogenic needs are most often dynamic factors that have the potential to be assessed and treated using an appropriate treatment plan (Bonta, 2002).
There are three criminogenic needs that have been found to be the most important when considering which needs to treat. Antisocial associates, antisocial personality characteristics, and antisocial values, beliefs and attitudes have all been linked with an offender’s likelihood of reoffending. Once these needs have been considered and treated an offender’s recidivism rate is likely to lower (Van Voorhis et al., 2007). However, female offenders should also have the areas of parental stress, current mental health symptoms, poverty, trauma, relationship problems, and substance abuse considered in addition to the aforementioned factors (Van Voorhis, Salsibury, Wright & Bauman, 2008).
There are also additional circumstances that could affect an offender’s likelihood and ability to participate in needed treatment. Program success is likely to be contingent on factors such as “intelligence, anxiety, ethnicity, cognitive maturity, personality, attention deficit disorder, housing, learning style, child care, transportation” (Van Voorhis et al., 2007, p. 136), and other considerations that could affect an offender’s ability to attend a treatment program or the ability to learn while in the program. The responsivity principle states that these situations, and others, should be considered when an offender is shown to need a specific treatment program and that these needs should be accommodated (Van Voorhis et al., 2007).
There are a number of commonly used classification systems within the field of criminal justice. The risk assessment system is the earliest and most commonly used classification system. It is mainly used to predict new offenses or the likelihood of misconduct while incarcerated. The needs assessment system identifies relevant treatment decisions, prison adjustment, and the risks associated with community re-entry. This type of assessment can identify offender needs, recommend services relevant to the offender, individualized case planning, and allocate agency and program resources (Van Voorhis et al., 2007).
The risk/needs assessments only assess needs that are also considered risks. The majority of the risks considered during this type of assessment are dynamic risk factors that have the potential to change and thus can be reassessed in order to reclassify an offender at a later date. This type of assessment allows for an offender’s risk level or need for treatment to change over time. Additionally, gender-responsive assessments have been found to be valid when assessing female offenders and are a more effective way to assess the needs of female offenders (Van Voorhis et al., 2007). Developing assessments specifically designed for female offenders is one way in which the criminal justice field is making better use of the assessment resources they currently have available to them and is a much better way of assessing the needs and treatment potential of the female offender population (Van Voorhis et al., 2008).
Assessment has become much more accurate and beneficial as more is being studied about the effectiveness of assessment. For example, using different forms of assessment is more beneficial than relying solely on one method and accurately assessing offenders has lead to better treatment options and lower recidivism rates overall (Bonta, 2002). Also, by assessing female offenders differently than male offenders can lead to better treatment options for female offenders and more accurate classification of female offender risk levels and treatment needs (Van Voorhis et al., 2007). Although the assessment and classification of offenders has not yet been perfected the discoveries made thus far are helping numerous offenders receive better treatment and the skills needed to remain within the general population.
Bonta, J. (2002). Offender Risk Assessment: Guidelines for Selection and Use. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 29: 355-379.
Van Voorhis, P., Braswell, M. & Lester, D. (2007). Correctional Counseling and Rehabilitation, 7th ed., Cincinnati, OH: Lexis/Nexis.
Van Voorhis, P., Salisbury, E., Wright, E., & Bauman, A. (2008). Achieving Accurate Pictures of Risk and Identifying Gender-Responsive Needs: Two New Assessments for Women Offenders. Washington D.C.: United States Department of Justice: National Institiute of Corrections.