Exploring variation in probation risk assessments and factors influencing clinical assessments. By Amy Thornton, Deputy Head of Probation – Black Country, Dudley, UK. 


Exploring variation in probation risk assessments by Amy

Probation officer risk assessments are used to make key criminal justice decisions and to allocate resources. To ensure validity and reliability, they must be based on factors proven within empirical research to link to recidivism and undertaken with a transparent approach. This study aims to explore whether risk assessment judgements vary between groups of practitioners and what factors influence probation decisions about risk. The research questions were explored by discussing constructed vignettes in focus groups across six locations. The study adds to the conceptual understanding of risk in probation practice. The findings have led to recommendations for further research and suggestions for probation policy and training.


Probation Officer risk assessment varies by:

  • How officers interpret risk factors.
  • Middle manager influence and local practice.
  • Faith in tools and time to use them.
  • Perception of service user trust and honesty.
  • Familiarity with service user and offence.
  • Fear of getting it wrong.

This research illustrates the individuality and subjectivity of assessing risk and that this can result in variations. The study found that probation officer risk assessments vary in both method and outcome. How, where and who undertakes an assessment can impact on the outcome by considering or interpreting factors differently. This variation provides an unequal provision of service, or justice by geography. As a member of the public, a politician or service user, there may be an expectation of fairness and legitimacy in risk assessment practice. This cannot be realised if two practitioners, in two different locations make different assessments given the same information. Probation officers do not consider all risk factors defined in empirical evidence and have a mistrust of some tools. The implications of this, is increased subjectivity, inconsistency, reduced accuracy and diminished legitimacy. What became apparent during this study was an overarching, and conscious, practice of defensive decision making by probation officers. The fear of getting it wrong was developing a risk averse culture. Probation officers spoke passionately, mostly knowledgably, sometimes not so knowledgably, and professionally about how to assess risk and, worryingly, how they feel under impossible pressure to predict the future. It is hoped that this study will encourage additional research, training and support to ensure probation officers make accurate, legitimate and defensible assessments.

Read the thesis poster here 

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