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Understanding Risk in the Context of the Youth Criminal Justice Act

NCJ Number
Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice Volume: 49 Issue: 4 Dated: October 2007 Pages: 465-491
Paula Maurutto; Kelly Hannah-Moffat
Date Published
October 2007
27 pages
This article explores and analyzes the entry of empirically based risk assessments into the legal arena, with a particular focus on youth pre-sentence reports (PSRs) in Canada.
The article concludes that the adoption of risk/need assessment tools in the preparation of PSRs raises a number of questions. Among these is whether risk assessment tools themselves can be legally defensible, given that much of the information collected continues to be marred by subjective and/or moral assumptions. Equally important is whether the courts have the requisite knowledge to interpret risk information properly. The judiciary is rarely provided with adequate training on the various meanings and interpretations of risk scores. Moreover when risk is used to frame rehabilitation in the context of the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), it presents the potential for undermining the central premise of proportionate sentencing. Those identified as high-risk may face longer custody or a battery of conditions that offenders accused of similar crimes but presenting fewer needs may be spared. The order imposed to the use of empirically based risk tools shapes and constricts understandings of need and treatment. These concerns are compounded for women and other marginalized groups, specifically Aboriginals. The particular construction of risk and criminogenic needs too often ignores the social, historical, and cultural realities of those less privileged. The use of actuarial tools and sentencing could amount to statistical justice, where dispositions are determined on the basis of how closely a young offender matches some profile of likely offenses rather than on an examination of the actual offense committed. Further scrutiny of any research into the impact of risk, particularly risk tools that are incorporated into the PSR, is required. Notes, references