This paper identifies and discusses four principles of risk and needs assessment (RNA) believed by the authors to be critical in the design and implementation of data-informed RNA decision-making tools: fairness, efficiency, effectiveness, and communication.
The primary purpose of RNA assessment is to provide supportive and therapeutic resources to those who need them the most, based on individualized assessment of their risks and needs. The four principles proposed and discussed in this paper are intended to assist practitioners and researchers improve the selection and use of RNA tools for the post-sentencing stage of criminal justice processing. The principle of “fairness” requires that RNA tools be used to achieve more equitable outcomes. Assessments should be designed to eliminate or minimize potential sources of bias and mitigate racial and ethnic disparities. The principle of “efficiency” requires eliminating paper-and-pencil instruments in favor of adopting automated and computer-assisted scoring processes that increase reliability, validity, and assessment capacity. Inter-rater reliability assessment should be conducted to ensure consistency in scoring among staff. The principle of “effectiveness” is related to the predictive validity and accuracy of the RNA and how the tool is used by an agency. Machine learning algorithms often assist in increasing predictive accuracy, although developers should test multiple algorithms to determine which performs the best. The fourth principle, “risk communication,” involves training the correctional staff using the RNA tool to explain to those assessed the needs and risks identified and the case plan developed to meet those needs and reduce the risks. Relying on these four principles can mitigate disparities and achieve better recidivism outcomes. To assist developers and practitioners in applying the guidelines outlined within each principle, a checklist is provided.