Risk assessment of male aboriginal offenders: A 2006 perspective

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Executive summary

Aboriginal offenders are different from non-Aboriginal offenders in a number of ways. For example, Aboriginal offenders are overrepresented within the criminal justice system relative to their numbers in the general population. In 2004-05, Aboriginal offenders represented 16.2% of the total federal offender population and 20% of the provincial/territorial offender population, while Aboriginal adults accounted for only 2.7% of the Canadian adult population in the last Canadian census. Also, when compared to non-Aboriginal offenders, research has found that Aboriginal offenders are more likely to commit violent crimes, are classified as higher-risk and higher-need, tend be younger, have a lower level of education and are less likely to employed when admitted to custody. This disparity has remained stable over the years, despite many efforts to improve the situation.

Given the differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal offenders, coupled with the fact that most risk assessment instruments were originally validated on non-Aboriginal offenders, it is not surprising that some individuals question whether risk factors are comparable across the two groups, and whether the same risk assessment instrument should be used for both populations. While these are valid concerns, research results should quell these concerns, at least to some degree.

Although there is not an abundance of research in this area, research to date suggests that the majority of risk factors are applicable to male Aboriginal offenders. Research has also found that some of the more widely-recognized risk assessment instruments, such as the Statistical Information on Recidivism (SIR) scale (Nuffield, 1982) and the Level of Service Inventory – Revised (LSI-R; Bonta & Andrews, 1995), are equally valid and predict recidivism equally well for male Aboriginal offenders, even though they were designed based on a non-Aboriginal population.

The purpose of this review was three-fold. First, the research on risk factors was reviewed to determine whether risk factors were similar for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal male offenders. Second, various risk assessment instruments were examined to determine how well they predicted risk for the male Aboriginal offenders. Third, different perspectives regarding risk assessment of male Aboriginal offenders were presented, commonalities between the views were identified, and recommendations were outlined.

Risk factors

Over the last few decades, numerous risk factors have been examined, and for the most, consensus has been reached on which risk factors are most important. Eight central risk factors have been identified, which are as follows: (1) history of antisocial behaviour, (2) antisocial personality, (3) antisocial attitudes, (4) antisocial peers, (5) family/marital problems, (6) school/employment difficulties, (7) absence of positive leisure or recreational activities, and (8) substance abuse. Other weaker risk factors have also been identified (e.g., social class of origin, intellectual functioning, anxiety, self-esteem); however, these risk factors do not predict risk as well as the central eight risk factors.

Risk factors can be described as "static" or "dynamic". Static risk factors are factors that are unlikely to change over time, and are considered to be stable in nature, such as criminal history. Dynamic risk factors are "dynamic" in nature and can change over time, usually with appropriate treatment. Examples of dynamic risk factors include substance abuse, antisocial attitudes, and antisocial peers, just to name a few. Dynamic risk factors can also be seen as "need" factors, areas in an offender's life that are in need of attention (i.e., treatment). In fact, using the term "risk/need" factor often emphasizes this parallel. Needs are either "criminogenic" or "non-criminogenic" in nature. Criminogenic needs are needs that are directly related to the criminal behaviour, and if appropriately and successfully targeted, the likelihood of reoffence will be reduced. Non-criminogenic needs are also areas that are deemed problematic and require treatment; however, these needs are not directly related to criminal offending, and are therefore often classified as secondary in the treatment plan. Therefore, while the label "risk factor" may carry a negative connotation in some contexts (e.g. the presence of more risk factors usually indicates a higher risk to reoffend, or results in a higher security classification while incarcerated), it is important to remember that risk factors can also be viewed in a more positive sense (as "need factors"), factors which a treatment plan should incorporate, so that the likelihood of reoffending can be reduced.

The amount of research conducted on the applicability of these central eight risk factors on male Aboriginal offenders varies, depending on the risk factor being examined. A history of antisocial behaviour, usually defined as criminal history, is the most studied of all the risk factors when it comes to Aboriginal offenders. Here, the research is clear – criminal history predicts risk equally well for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal offenders. Although there is less research on substance abuse, antisocial attitudes, antisocial personality and antisocial peers, research to date suggests that these factors are also equally applicable to male Aboriginal offenders. In short, research is consistent regarding equal applicability for all risk factors with Aboriginal offenders, with the exception of two.

A landmark study, conducted by James Bonta, Carol LaPrairie and Suzanne Wallace-Capretta in 1997, examined a number of risk factors in the context of a scale validation and found that all risk factors were predictive for male Aboriginal offenders except for the risk factors "family/marital" and "school/employment". These two risk factors did not predict risk for the Aboriginal offender group in their study. Little research has been conducted since then, so additional research is needed before any firm conclusions are made regarding these two risk factors and their applicability.

Arguments have been presented as to why some of the risk factors may not be applicable to Aboriginal offenders. For example, perhaps Aboriginal communities have different views on the importance of education and full-time employment and maybe these cultural value distinctions become evident through certain risk factors. Perhaps these two risk factors really do not apply to Aboriginal offenders; this has yet to be determined. Arguments have also been made suggesting the possibility that other risk factors may exist that apply to Aboriginal offenders specifically (i.e., that do not apply to non-Aboriginal offenders) but research has yet to identify these factors. For example, research from Australia and New Zealand is exploring cultural-specific risk factors related to Aboriginal identity and the need for group membership within their Indigenous offender population. Additional research is required in this area as well.

Generally speaking, additional research is warranted to examine all risk factors to a greater degree; however, what currently exists certainly supports the position that the majority of risk factors are similar across the two cultures.

Risk assessment instruments

It is unusual for each risk factor to be assessed one at a time in the correctional context. These days, risk factors are often examined collectively, usually in the form of a structured risk assessment instrument. Many risk assessment instruments exist, though some instruments are more widely accepted and utilized than others, mostly due to their strong psychometric properties. A thorough risk assessment should include a comprehensive review of a number of risk factors, with consideration given to an offender's past, present and future, and incorporation of the offender's individual characteristics and his or her surrounding environment.

As with risk factors, there is also research that supports the position that many prominent risk assessment instruments are valid for use with male Aboriginal offenders. With this in mind, the second goal of this review was to examine three of the main risk assessment instruments that are currently used in Canada [1]. Research on two instruments, the LSI-R and the SIR scale, suggests that these risk assessment scales are valid and predict risk among male Aboriginal offenders. Research on the SIR scale and Aboriginal offenders is conclusive, with scores predicting general recidivism equally well for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal offender groups. Less research has been conducted on the LSI-R, but the majority of research to date has found that this risk assessment instrument is also applicable with Canadian male Aboriginal offenders.

Most risk assessment instruments include the central eight risk factors; however, some instruments only include static risk factors. The SIR scale, for example, only contains static risk factors; therefore, not all eight of the central risk factors are represented. The LSI-R on the other hand, includes all eight central risk factors, and many other additional factors. Incorporation of both static and dynamic risk and need factors allows for a more comprehensive assessment, and for a more appropriate treatment plan to be developed. The LSI-R also includes a professional discretion override component, allowing the administrator to incorporate factors or considerations that are not accounted for in the structured portion of the risk assessment.

The incorporation of a variety of risk and need factors is also an important consideration when assessing populations on which the instrument was not originally validated. Furthermore, adherence to the principles of effective correctional treatment is crucial to ensure optimal treatment results. Three of the most important principles are the risk principle, the need principle and the responsivity principle. The responsivity principle is of particular importance in the context of Aboriginal offenders. In essence, in order for treatment to be successful, the treatment should be of a cognitive-behavioural nature, and must be administered in a method that is consistent with the offender's learning style and cultural context. The importance of cultural knowledge, on the part of both the practitioner conducting the assessment and the treatment providers, is discussed.

The need and availability of appropriate treatment for incarcerated Aboriginal offenders has also been raised in the context of risk assessment. One possible explanation for the resistance to risk assessment instruments being used on Aboriginal offenders is the fact that the instrument may indicate that the offender is high-risk. As indicated, a higher number of Aboriginal offenders are classified as high-risk when compared to non-Aboriginal offenders, not because they are Aboriginal, but because they evidence a higher number of risk factors that are measured by the instrument. Unfortunately a higher risk score results in a number of events occurring. On the one hand, comprehensive treatment plans can incorporate all the risk/need factors identified. On the other hand, a higher risk score usually results in a higher security classification, dictating placement in a maximum-security institution, where appropriate programming is less likely to be available. This is a major concern. Although Aboriginal-specific treatment approaches have been developed (e.g., healing lodges), Aboriginal offenders cannot participate or be placed within a lodge if they are classified as high-risk. Therefore, it is always important to recognize the consequences of having a risk assessment completed. Of course, the absence of a risk assessment instrument also poses concerns, as human judgement tends to over-classify offenders. Possibilities to address these concerns include mitigating risk scores to allow for differential lower-security placement for treatment purposes, or altering current practices to increase the availability of treatment to address all the needs that are identified through the risk assessment.

Various perspectives, common ground and recommendations

The final purpose of this review was to present various perspectives on the topic of risk assessment of Aboriginal offenders, identify commonalities, and outline recommendations. While there are many different perspectives, a common theme is the need for risk assessment, though opinions differ on the appropriate assessor and the form the assessment should take. There is agreement that "needs" should be identified and that appropriate treatment plans should target these needs. There is also acknowledgement that there are many different methods of doing things, and that no one method is always better than another – they can simply be different. For example, methods of communication between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal groups are often different in the context of risk assessment. Whereas the empirical method of communication involves emphasis on numbers and structured objectivity, many Aboriginal communities stress non-verbal communication techniques, valuing the importance of story telling and passing down the teachings from one generation to the next. What is valued in a non-Aboriginal society may not be valued to such a degree in an Aboriginal society and vice versa. For example, respecting the land, respecting family and Elders, and living off the land are values found in many Aboriginal communities. An understanding of both cultures is required to address the current issues at hand.

It is important for non-Aboriginal people to recognize the injustices that have been committed against many Aboriginal people. While these injustices have resulted in disadvantage and is apparent in many forms, these disadvantages may not play a role in risk prediction. The goal of risk prediction is to predict, not explain. That being said, openness to the explanations is important, when working together. Understanding between the two groups is essential to ensure accurate risk prediction, but also to increase the likelihood of successful treatment and reintegration of Aboriginal offenders back into the community.

From this review, the following recommendations were formed. First, any discussion about risk assessment of Aboriginal offenders should start from what is already known. There is research to suggest that the majority of risk factors are applicable to Aboriginal offenders, so one should start from there rather than reinventing the wheel. Second, researchers should continue to examine the major risk factors, the possibility of potential Aboriginal-specific risk factors, and continue to validate the risk assessment instruments that are currently being used. Third, Aboriginal communities should be utilized for their expertise, in the following ways. Education and cultural understanding is essential, both for conducting risk assessments of Aboriginal offenders and for those validating and developing risk assessment instruments. Aboriginal communities should be involved in the procedure to determine whether additional cultural-related risk factors exist. The expertise of Aboriginal communities should also be incorporated into the development of appropriate treatment strategies for Aboriginal offenders, specifically incorporating the responsivity principle. Lastly, partnerships between Aboriginal communities and the risk assessment experts, with agreement on a common goal, will certainly facilitate movement towards addressing the issue of risk assessment with Aboriginals offenders in Canada.

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