Using Evidence-Based Assessment To Create Problem-Solving Interventions

Center for Court Innovation researcher Sarah Picard-Fritsche discusses the risk-need-responsivity model for
working with offenders and the Center’s efforts to develop a screening tool for misdemeanor offenders.

The following is a transcript


Hi. I’m Raphael Pope-Sussman at the Center for Court Innovation and in today’s podcast, we’re looking
at risk-need assessment tools for offenders. Our guest is Sarah Fritsche, associate director of research here at
the Center. Sarah, thank you for speaking with me today and welcome.

FRITSCHE: Thanks. Happy to be here.

is risk-need?

FRITSCHE:  Well, risk-need-responsivity theory is essentially
a theory of crime prevention which has three core components. The risk principle, which suggests that courts and
treatment programs that are interested in reducing the risk of offenders should focus on those individuals coming
through the system who are at the highest risk for re-offense–as opposed to what we sometimes see happening, which
is lower risk offenders, we focus our resources on them based on an idea that they deserve a second chance or that
the higher risk offender is a lost cause.

All of those ideas are quite intuitive
but actually research evidence shows us that when we focus our resources on treating and intervening with and supervising
the higher risk group, that is when we achieve risk reductions and when we are able to get people out of the revolving
door where they keep coming through the jails over and over again.

we focus our resources on lower risk offenders, ironically enough or perhaps it’s not really an irony, I don’t
know, but unfortunately when we do that, what happens is that we sometimes increase risk because we put folks who
have pro-social networks and not very serious drug problems who just were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We
put them into intensive treatment and that exposes them to anti-social networks, that takes them away from their
job, that takes them away from their family, and this increases their risk for future offense and future involvement
in the justice system.

POPE-SUSSMAN: What’s the origin of
this theory?

FRITSCHE:  The theory originates with two Canadian psychologists
in the late ’80s, early ’90s, James Bonta and his partner’s name was Andrews. They were actually developing
an assessment tool which is now one of the longest-used assessment tools in the field, called the “Level of Services
Inventory.” Their theories of criminal conduct are essentially psychological. Individual theories of criminal conduct
were what undergirded the assessment tool that they created. They came up with a theory– the main and most tested
principle in the theory is the risk principle, but there’s also two other components. One is the need principle,
which tells us that we should try to understand the specific needs of each individual person coming through the justice
system in order to give them the correct targeted treatment. It’s that part that is intuitive.

But without the correct assessment tools, we can’t figure out what that is. The third
component is responsivity, which means that we should develop treatment programs or therapeutic intervention programs
that respond to people’s learning styles and some clinical needs that might interfere with their ability to
recover, such as mental illness or trauma.

POPE-SUSSMAN: Can you talk a little
bit about what you’re working on in the Center and what is the Center’s focus right now in terms of risk-need

FRITSCHE: Sure. I started working in this area about five years
ago and my interest in it grew out of one of the first studies that I did here at the Center, which was a study of
Brooklyn’s program, which they call the Universal Screening for Drug Court, for people in the criminal court
who might have the need for drug treatment. They were trying to find as many people as they could and send them into
drug court as an alternative to maybe a short-term jail sentence that they might get. They had a screening system
that was effectively just based on present charge. I guess my response to the system was that it was well intentioned
but that based on the research that I did that they probably needed a little more information to identify the individuals
that were most appropriate for drug court programming. A little more clinical information, maybe a little more criminal
history information.

I started looking around to see if anybody else had had
that idea and that’s where I ran into risk-need-responsivity theory. One of our first projects here that’s
really about this theory is testing the LSI-R, which I just described to you as one of the earliest tools in …

POPE-SUSSMAN: Just for listeners who aren’t so savvy, what does LSI-R stand for?

FRITSCHE: Oh, it stands for the Level of Services Inventory and it’s just a 54-item
assessment tool that they developed to assess individual offenders along the areas that we know may be related to
re-offense. We wrote a proposal to the National Institute of Justice to do a randomized controlled trial where we
looked at whether … we’re looking, we’re actually now analyzing and writing up the data, at whether the
treatment plans and outcomes of a drug court participant that was assessed using the LSI-R would be any different
than those where they didn’t get a standardized or RNR-based assessment. That was our first project that began
in 2010 and is ongoing and will be reported on soon.

Then shortly following
that project, the world of evidence-based assessment, evidence-based practice just however coincidentally really
exploded and a lot of the federal government agencies that we worked with and other non-profit organizations that
work in the justice system became very interested in some of these concepts– whether we could use evidence-based
validated assessments to learn more about what keeps offenders caught in this revolving door of being incarcerated
and re-offending very quickly. And whether we could then use that information or evidence to develop better programs
that are therapeutic interventions. The Center has a long history of trying to create therapeutic or problem-solving
interventions for offenders. This foray into this field was very natural for us.

the evidence-based assessment research in the drug court started, we have picked up several new projects that are
in this area. At the moment, we are looking at a different assessment tool that’s similar to the LSI-R called
the COMPAS. Don’t ask me what that stands for because nobody really knows, but it’s a similar tool and
we’re looking at that specifically in a sub-population of mentally ill offenders because there’s a lot
of questions in the field as to whether these validated assessments that have been historically used to predict outcomes
for general felony populations will work in some of the sub-populations that are important in the justice system,
mentally ill offenders being one of them.

Then the other project that’s
very important in this field that we’re doing right now began specifically from misdemeanor offenders, which
is another important and understudied subgroup. We have, nationally in our justice system, about 10 million individuals
per year that come through our criminal courts on misdemeanor charges. We have a very underdeveloped understanding
or comprehension of what the clinical and social service needs and criminal risk of these individuals is. That gap
in the research is what brought us to develop and seek funding for the Misdemeanor Assessment Project, which is a
two-part project. First, to develop an assessment tool that can accurately give us a profile of the risk and needs
of misdemeanor offenders rooted in risk-need-responsivity theory, and secondly to develop an intervention that we
hope will effectively reduce risk for re-arrest in this population. Because the misdemeanor population is also quite
tricky in terms of therapeutic intervention because they may have very high needs. They may have very serious drug
problems. They may have mental illness. They may be traumatized. They may have long rap sheets. Their current charge
will not allow you to put them in a two-year drug treatment program such as a drug court no matter how badly they
may need it. We have to maintain legal proportionality.

The second part of
the Misdemeanor Assessment Project is specifically to develop short-term interventions including evidence-based cognitive
behavioral treatments for this population that we hope will at least advance the ball for them somewhat in terms
of reducing the clinical and social structural factors that cause them to come back into the system so quickly.

POPE-SUSSMAN: Are there specific projects that we’re rolling out?

The Misdemeanor Assessment Project is a specific project. We’re at a stage now where we have developed a short
screening tool that we feel is feasible for people in criminal courts here in New York City and nationally to try
to get an idea of what the profile of their low-level offender population is in terms of risk and needs. This short
screening tool is currently being used in Cook County, which is essentially Chicago, with a pilot test of a program
they have for misdemeanor offenders who have been diverted from jail from traditional processing, court processing,
and are given some level of treatment. Based on our screening tool, they’re going to make an assessment of whether
to give them a high level of treatment because they’re high risk, or something a little less if they’re
a moderate risk, or basically just refer them to services if they’re low risk. In Cook County, we’re using
this tool as a test of the risk principle, basically.

The same short assessment
tool is being rolled out in New York City, in Brooklyn and Manhattan criminal courts as a part of a larger research
study to re-validate whether the items and domains that we think are predicting re-arrest in this population in New
York City … we’re going to test them again. We tested them once last year and we’re going to test them
again. That’s one product that we have that we’re refining but we’re also giving to the field to use
and test and then at the same time, we’re developing a short-term intervention for misdemeanor offenders that
we’re going to pilot test in the community courts in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn over the next six months.

POPE-SUSSMAN: Great. Longer term on the horizon, are there any further plans?

FRITSCHE: Yes. I think it’s sometimes a little hard to see past the next six months
especially for those of us who do research because we’re oftentimes quite reticent to make claims. I think that
there’s definitely a demand on the ground for concrete tools, curriculums, assessment instruments that can help
people move the needle from their default response to a lot of criminal behavior and overloaded criminal dockets–which
is to put people into short-term stays and detention–to having more evidence-based responses to this kind of crime
that have the potential to reduce risk.

I think that it’s a very timely
field not just for practitioners but politically and especially socially here in the United States, that there’s
currently a public debate about whether incarceration is an effective response to crime, especially low-level crime.
I think that our focus on these issues is really going to become … I hope it will become a part of practical solutions
and a part of the national conversation on alternatives to incarceration.

That’s very exciting. Well, thank you so much for talking to me today. I’m Raphael Pope-Sussman. I’ve
been speaking with Sarah Fritsche, associate director of research at the Center for Court Innovation about risk/need
assessment tools. To learn more about the Center for Court Innovation, please visit Thank
you for listening.