Subverting and Negotiating Risk Assessment: A Case Study of the LSI in a Canadian Youth Custody Facility

Article excerpt

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. …


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