Over the last decade, jurisdictions across the country have increasingly implemented actuarial tools to aid decision making in the juvenile justice system. Simply put, these research-based instruments systematically collect and combine information about a youth to predict a certain outcome, like recidivism, failing to appear in court or misconduct while placed in a residential facility. Tools such as risk and need assessments, disposition matrices, detention risk assessment instruments and risk of institutional violence tools assist professionals to determine which youth are most at risk for the outcome in question and the optimal interventions to minimize that risk.
Actuarial tools have numerous benefits. When it comes to forecasting recidivism, for example, we know from the research that system officials do a far better job when aided by these tools as opposed to exclusively relying on subjective factors. When validated and implemented with fidelity, these instruments can help staff to target resources toward those youth most likely to benefit from system involvement and promote equity in the juvenile justice system. Given studies indicating that youth’s perceptions of fairness positively affect their level of engagement with staff and services, it is especially important that we make consistent and objective decisions that impact their lives.
Despite the compelling reasons to use these tools, not all system staff and stakeholders are immediately enamored with them, and this can lead to significant challenges with effective implementation. Judges, attorneys, probation and corrections officials may view the instruments as impersonal, antithetical to the goals of the justice system or as an affront to their professional judgment.
Some scholars have linked this resistance to the longstanding ethos of individualized justice within the juvenile justice system. Since its inception, they argue, the system has prioritized personalized services and supervision at the discretion of the courts. Thus, introducing tools to guide decision making in this respect may be interpreted as an infringement on that discretion.
In order to achieve positive outcomes for system-involved youth, however, it is critical that the juvenile justice field continue to use actuarial tools to drive decision making and to implement the tools with fidelity. Navigating and overcoming staff resistance to the introduction of such instruments is challenging, but it can be done. In these circumstances, several strategies should be employed.
3 steps to take