Is the Over-Prediction of Risk an Epidemic?

A recent blog by Karen Franklin, Ph.D. is an eye-opener and good review for forensic psychologists and introduction to some of the challenges and concerns raging in the professional community in sex offender risk prediction:

Black swan crash lands on Florida SVP program

…the auditors identified an actuarial risk assessment tool, the widely used Static-99R, as a key factor in Florida’s epidemic of over-prediction.

In 2009, government evaluators in Florida and elsewhere in the United States began a controversial practice of comparing some offenders to a select set of norms called “high risk.” This practice dramatically inflates risk estimates, thereby alarming jurors in adversarial legal proceedings.

The recidivism rate of the Static-99R “high risk” comparison sample is several times higher than the actual recidivism rate of even the highest-risk offenders, the auditors noted. Thus, consistent with research findings from other states, they found that use of these high-risk norms is a major factor in the exaggeration of sex offender risk in Florida.

“The precision once thought to be present in using the Static-99 has diminished,” the report states. “It seems apparent that less weight needs to be given to the Static-99R in sexually violent predator evaluations.”

Is the pendulum swinging back towards clinical judgment?

Clinical judgment, the very imprecise “mechanism” of gauging risk for which reason the era of actuarial risk instruments flourished, seems to be finding its way back into the risk assessment equation.

Perhaps we can borrow from a legal concept in assessing risk:

The four corners of an instrument: one understands the meaning of the entire document based on everything encompassed within its four corners. Extraneous or extrinsic information ought not permeate the evaluation.

Lesson to be learned: all tools have flaws and weaknesses. Too little is probably not enough, and too much may not be a good thing. Avail yourself of the best empirically validated tools, relevant to the population being evaluated, consider baselines, population similarities and differences, N, weigh in on strengths and weaknesses, play Devil’s Advocate with yourself, consider your sources of information, primary v. secondary sources, and, ultimately, construct your “four corners” and examine what credibly falls within the four corners and that which breaches the perimeter.

Also worth a look, see Jill Levenson’s commentary:

Opinion: Sex Offense Recidivism Is Rare, Shouldn’t Determine Policy

…passing laws based on anomalous cases is not good social policy.

A parallel concern might be the “knee-jerk reaction” to “anamolous cases” that capture our attention every so often. The mere heinous nature of the incident and vivid visuals may result in a rush to legislation.

Putting aside the context in which Jill Levenson made her comments, the following recommendation generally rings true:

We need to start thinking about early prevention and fund, not cut, social service programs for children and families.

A needed role for psychologists and perhaps another “Talking Point.”



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