Assessing risk for violence has become
an important area in forensics, producing an abundance of
valuable research over recent years. Utilizing valid and
reliable methods of predicting violence is necessary so
that courts can make appropriate decisions on issues such
as sentencing, granting privileges, and community reintegration.
For example, if an individual is assessed to be a high risk
for future violence, a judge has grounds to order a more
restrictive setting compared to someone who is a lower risk
for recidivism. By tailoring court decisions based on accurate
risk assessments, the community is made safer while also
protecting the rights of the defendant.
Current research suggests utilizing
multiple sources of information in making risk assessments.
First, it is important to review available records, including
clinical records, police reports, and arrest records. A
defendant’s history should anchor risk assessments
because a good predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
John Monahan, who is a prominent figure in the field of
risk assessment, stated that “if there is one finding
that overshadows all others in the area of prediction, it
is that the probability of future crime increases with each
prior criminal act.”
Conducting a thorough clinical interview
is the next step in good risk assessment. A clinical interview
provides information on an individual’s current mental
status, and whether the person meets clinical criteria for
a mental illness, which is considered a risk factor for
dangerous behavior. The clinical interview should emphasize
risk assessment, corroborating risk factors identified from
past records, as well as identifying other possible risk
Finally, there is an increasing number of empirically based
instruments available for predicting risk for violence (e.g.,
Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, Violence Risk Appraisal Guide).
Risk factors on these instruments are categorized as static
or dynamic risk factors. Static risk factors are historical
factors that are temporally stable in nature. Examples of
static risk factors include having a history of previous
violence, young age at first violent incident, employment
problems, substance use problems, having a major mental
illness, and prior supervision failure. Dynamic risk factors
tend to change and can moderate the effects of static risk
factors, thus adjusting the risk level of the individual.
Examples of dynamic risk factors include having a lack of
insight, negative attitudes, active symptoms of a major
mental illness, impulsivity, and being unresponsive to treatment.
Predicting future violence and recidivism
is not an exact science. The best a clinician can do is
to indicate whether an individual is at low, moderate, or
high risk for violence. However, given today’s technology
in the field of violence prediction, we can have more confidence
in the expert opinion of a qualified forensic scientist.
Defense attorneys may feel that securing such opinions better
protect their clients so that unwarranted concerns do not
intrude into court decisions. Prosecutors, on the other
hand, may find that a credible expert opinion on violence
prediction can strengthen their efforts to protect society.