nextgenforensic

Do you speak the common (risk) language? A guide to risk for sexual offending

Andrew E. Brankley

7,099—that is the number of different languages spoken on Earth. How many do you speak? Most people only speak one and, if you are reading this blog, it is probably English. Learning English is highly valued because it is spoken in so many different countries; it is a common language. A common language is especially valuable in coordinating professionals and the public to prevent sexual abuse.

“The important question for both professionals and the community is who should we be worried about?”

Public discourse on sexual abuse is usually intense. It evokes a flurry of feelings—shame, guilt, anger, disgust, fear, sadness—making it easy to oversimplify or avoid the problem all together. One important conversation is about the danger posed by individuals who have already been convicted of a sexual offence. Long term studies of these individuals reveal that not all of them will commit a new offence. The important question for both professionals and the community is who should we be worried about?

Risk for a new sexual offence is typically described by some variation of “High”, “Moderate”, or “Low”. The problem is that these labels are vague. Saying it is “hot” outside, for example, is only interpretable if you are familiar with the context. If you are from Canada or Europe, 25°C may feel hot. If you are from a country closer to the equator, you may think only +40°C weather is “hot”. If you are from the United States, you may have no idea what I am referring to because you use the Fahrenheit scale. Like temperature, we need a common language to talk about risk that is not based in local norms or experiences.

“We need a common language to talk about risk that is not based in local norms or experiences.”

Representatives from the National Reentry Resource Center of the United States (US), the US Justice Center (Council of State Governments), and Public Safety Canada developed a common language for communicating risk. The root of the common language is the likelihood of committing a new conviction after being returned to the community. From this basis, individuals are grouped into five levels that are relevant for management and intervention. Further research has detailed how these five levels can be applied to risk for sexual offending. The five risk levels for individuals with a history of sexual offending are described briefly in Table 1. A case-based description for each of these levels is provided below. These cases represent the typical person in each risk level.

risklanguage

[Adapted from Hanson et al. (2017)]

 

Level I – Very Low Risk: “Alan”

“Risk will never be zero for anyone, but the likelihood of Alan committing a new sexual offence is as low as individuals who have a non-sexual criminal history.”

Alan was 61 years old when he was released into the community after committing a sexual offence against his niece when he was 40. He has, otherwise, led a law-abiding life and has family and friends who know about his past and still support him. He was able to return to his job and take part in community events. Risk will never be 0 for anyone, but the likelihood of Alan committing a new sexual offence is as low as individuals who have a non-sexual criminal history (See here for more). Specialized treatment programs for individuals convicted of sexual offences would not lower his risk any further from its very low level.

 

Level II – Lower than Average Risk: “Bob”

Bob is 41 years old and was convicted of a sexual offence against his longtime girlfriend’s 17-year-old daughter. He was drunk late at night and inappropriately touched her as they were watching TV. Bob’s alcohol use has caused him problems with his friends and family, and at the auto body shop where he has worked since graduating from high school. Bob’s probation officer described him as being ashamed of what he has done and that being convicted of a sexual offence showed him “how bad things had gotten because of drinking.” Bob’s girlfriend and family continue to support him. The probation officer believes Bob will drop down to Level I if he successfully completes community supervision and treatment for his alcohol use.

 

Level III – Average Risk: “Chris”

“In other words, out of 100 individuals “like Chris” between 6 and 8 will be convicted of a new sexual offence within 5 years and 92 to 96 will not. “

Chris is 36 and was convicted of a sexual offence after he forced a casual acquaintance into sex. He has never had a relationship last longer than 6 months. Chris also has difficulties maintaining a job, frequently blaming others for not seeing how hard he works. He has been arrested before for bar fights and public intoxication. Chris falls into the middle of our risk range.

Before engaging in any treatment, the likelihood of Chris committing a new sexual offence is 6-8% after 5 years in the community— in other words, out of 100 individuals “like Chris” between 6 and 8 will be convicted of a new sexual offence within 5 years and 92 to 96 will not. Chris’s correctional plan includes general programs for employment, anger management, and interpersonal skills, as well as specialized treatment programs for substance use and individuals convicted of sex offences. If he successfully completes these programs, he would likely have the same risk as individuals starting at Level II.

 

Level IV – Above Average Risk: “Derrick”

Derrick is 32 years old and is returning to prison for his second sexual offence. Both of his offences were against children he had been babysitting in his neighborhood. He has never held down a regular job nor had a steady romantic relationship. He reports having a sexual interest in children and is suspected of masturbating to child sexual abuse images. Derrick fits in Level IV, which spans a wide range of risk; the likelihood of him committing a new sexual offence is 2 to 4 times greater than individuals like Chris (i.e., Level III). To be more sensitive to changes in risk, some tools subdivide Level IV into IVa and IVb. Individuals in Level IVb still pose greater than average risk to reoffend (i.e., belong in Level IV) after successfully completing treatment.

 

Level V – Virtually Certain to Reoffend: “Ethan”

Ethan is 28 years old. He has a long history of sexual offending that began in adolescence and includes both contact and non-contact offences (e.g., flashing in public). He has rarely spent more than a few months outside of secure custody since he was first placed in a secure group home at the age 14. His most recent sexual offence included kidnapping and physical injury to a 10 year old boy he had not previously met. He also has several smaller convictions for theft, burglary, and substance use.

Ethan, though never finishing school, is often described as clever by correctional staff and has been found selling contraband on his unit. He does not like authority figures and reacts with hostility whenever staff interact with him. During the past year, Ethan has received eight institutional misconduct reports, typically for inappropriate/illegal sexual behaviour (e.g., flashing to guards, propositioning other residents) or direct defiance of institutional rules (e.g., refusing to return to cell, offensive language to staff). Management concerns resulted in Ethan moving to a maximum-security facility.

 

Summary

“The five risk levels are not bound to a jurisdiction; they are based in over 20 years of research on what works…”

Public safety is a shared responsibility. Sharing information about risk is difficult, potentially misleading, if the language you use is only understood by a select few. The five risk levels are not bound to a jurisdiction; they are based in over 20 years of research on what works in the assessment and management of individuals convicted of sexual offences. Integrating the common language into correctional practice can increase the likelihood that services are appropriately matched to individual’s risk and needs, reducing future offending.

 

Suggested citation:
Brankley, A. E. (2017, June 18). Do you speak the common (risk) language? A guide to risk for sexual offending [Weblog post]. Retrieved from https://nextgenforensic.wordpress.com/2017/06/18/do-you-speak-the-common-risk-language-a-guide-to-risk-for-sexual-offending/


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