Subverting and Negotiating Risk Assessment: A Case Study of the LSI in a Canadian Youth Custody Facility
Ballucci, Dale, Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice
Risk tools, complementing the new politics of punishment, have proliferated as an effective way for correctional agents to manage offenders and quickly became a fixture in Canadian (as well as the US and UK) correctional management (Cheliotis 2006; Ericson and Haggerty 1997; Hannah-Moffat 1999; O'Malley 1992). In Canada, the 1980s marked the beginning of a shift in mentalities around punishment that focused on fixing the behaviours that were associated with criminal activity (Hannah-Moffat 2001). Characterized as "correctional renewal," the strength of this approach grew throughout the 1990s (Moore 2007), creating a hospitable environment for the implementation of risk-assessment tools. (1) Part of this new managerial strategy aimed to address the "nothing works" campaign and to make decisions on evidence-based research that identified criminological factors most common to offender populations to better address offenders' needs. Whether risk assessment, as designed and practised today, effectively identifies rehabilitative needs is contested. I support the view that, in practice, despite the rhetoric, risk-assessment tools do not aim to merely effectively rehabilitate or punish but are instead a way to institute a process, one that identifies unruly individuals and groups (Simon and Feeley 1995). It is this process that I discuss in this article.
Despite risk-assessment tools' impact on the managerial process and their popularity, one cannot assume that correctional agents simply take up new managerial processes in a unified way. Hannah-Moffat, Maurutto, and Turnbull's (2009) most recent work in the area, examines Canadian correctional workers' use of risk-assessment tools to find that such agents subvert risk-assessment tools by employing several forms of discretion to moderate the effects of risk analysis in the governing process. As a result, Hannah-Moffat et al. (2009: 401) argue that practitioners' use of risk-assessment tools allows for obscuring discretionary power so as to "black box" the decision-making process. Such findings support examining the application of risk-assessment tools in various contexts to reveal how decisions are made in light of risk-assessment tools. This is an important line of inquiry given that an objective of risk-assessment tools is to streamline managerial decisions by removing the discretionary power of agents.
In this vein, my research examines the extent to which risk-assessment tools shape the management of young offenders in an open custody facility, which I call Youth House. Using interviews with both probation officers and local agents (who operate the open custody facility), I focus on how they deploy and subvert the Level of Supervision Inventory (LSI), a popular risk-assessment tool. I show what factors shape practitioners' decisions at times to embrace and at others to reject risk-assessment practices. My study is unique for two reasons: first, it focuses on young offenders, a population less studied; second, it brings attention to how local agents that govern youth on a day-to-day basis take up risk assessment. To date, most work pays attention to probation officers.
I find that the importance of risk scores in the management of young offenders differs between local agents and probation officers. I point to the various factors that shape the ways in which correctional agents use risk-assessment tools. These include knowledge of the risk-assessment tool design, of its history, and of its long-term effects on the management process. I show that local agents are critical of this tool and replace it with what I describe as a "holistic" approach to risk assessment. Probation officers, although less dedicated to and optimistic about the utility of risk-assessment tools, also incorporate their own strategies and risk-assessment rationales. I illustrate which, why, and how strategies are deployed and justified. Probation officers adhere to risk-assessment tools because it provides them with a way to rationalize and justify their decisions, something that is particularly important in situations where offenders act in unpredictable ways. …