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Risk Assessment for Violence

Ray S. Kim, Ph.D.

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 factors.

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.