Dehumanising process of risk assessment

By Charles Hanson, from insidetime issue December 2009

Charles Hanson believes OASys and current approaches to probation work is a total failure in providing what is really needed to reduce the risk of offending behaviour

Dehumanising process of risk assessmentThe Offender Assessment System (OASys), created in 2001 by the National Probation Service, combines clinical, statistical data and information for an assessment to be made. It also assists in making judgements about an offender’s risk of re-offending but moreover, to identify so-called criminogenic needs.

Clinical judgements are those made from face to face interviews and what might be revealed from an offender’s relationship with a probation officer or prison staff.

Statistical or what is referred to as ‘actuarial data’ is that which can be gathered from taking a group of offenders of a similar offending history, age, background and habits and calculating the risk of any one of the group re-offending. If the figure arrived at is 70% for the whole group then it is deemed that any one member of the group has a 70% chance of re-offending and is marked down as such.

Criminogenic needs are not what might be thought by an offender to be the same as social needs but what is needed to address and reduce the risk of further offending behaviour. For those offenders who complain that his or her probation officer does nothing to help or assist them to secure accommodation, employment or any other social need; I would advise them to forget it, for the day and age of probation social work has long passed and the service is now focused on public protection and enforcement of licence conditions with rehabilitation at the bottom of the list. Most probation work is driven by risk assessment using the above models and approaches.

With the emphasis in probation work now on quantification, the use of measurements to undertake risk assessments, and the achievement of measurable targets which is all dominated by a politically dominated policy, is centrally controlled, and a machine driven system for bureaucratically managing, containing and controlling offenders has tended to dehumanise the offender. And for the probation officer who was once viewed as being concerned with reform and rehabilitation and success stories, the modern approach has tended to erode the skills, experience, knowledge, understanding and professionalism of the modern probation service; once considered a people orientated enterprise.

The OASys sits very nicely with the current relationship approaches between probation officer, prison staff and offender; where prisoners are seen as ‘things’ to be measured, assessed, quantified and computerised. The one big flaw with such a system is that it deals in probabilities and not certainties so that it can never be known how, why, when or even if an offender will re-offend. Neither can it provide certain unambiguous scientific knowledge of the laws of human behaviour. Moreover there is no substitute for the professional assessment and judgement of a probation officer based on time spent with an offender with the application of social work knowledge, skill and understanding.

Clearly, that a prison officer can carry out an OASys assessment and score the assessment demonstrates just how far a college/university educated probation officer’s abilities have been deskilled.

What we have in OASys is a 300 page manual containing guidance notes for assessors who will go on to compile a 38 page OASys dossier relevant to the offender with many areas which arguably have no place within a risk assessment. Lack of housing for example is scored as a ‘risk’.

A major complaint of many offender’s is how one probation or prison officer will assess and score an offender’s OASys at a certain figure whilst another will score at a higher figure based on no more than a personal judgement. Indeed, I have known of cases where an offender’s score was rated higher by a probation officer to make him eligible for an offending behaviour course which can only be described as an outrageous dishonesty.

Providing such skills might be worthy if the offender’s social environment, employment opportunities, deprivation, inequality, discrimination, lack of literacy skills and poor socio-economic prospects were also improved instead as being seen as deserving of a higher score within OASys; but in this managerialism and risk orientated age, such social problems are translated as risks which have to be managed, whilst for the offender, he or she is seen by many members of the public as being of the underclass, a feckless welfare scrounger, a criminal in direct competition with normal tax-paying law-abiding citizens.

Taking groups of offender’s human identities apart and categorising them into axis, tables, graphs and risk assessments by the use of computers and assuming that this is scientific is an act of intellectual dishonesty which distorts what makes up the human condition and the potential for change. 

I can think of one other political regime which was methodical about paperwork, keeping records, disseminating data and information, setting targets, labelling and stigmatising whole groups of people and putting people who did not conform to regulations into prison.

The Nazi regime prided itself on rooting out Jews, Gypsies, trade unionists, criminals and the mentally infirm and the regime too saw risk and threats to their system coming out of the woodwork. Millions died because of it.

From my own personal experience within any one offender’s OASys there are likely to be inaccurate, untrue, ambiguous statements and entries within the document so that it becomes self-perpetuating and as other entries are added at later stages, it becomes increasingly difficult to fathom out the origins of untrue and inaccurate entries and even more difficult to have them removed.

In the final analysis, the OASys and the current approaches to probation work which relies heavily on its pseudo scientific authorship is a total failure in providing what is really needed to reduce the risk of offending behaviour, reducing the prison population and reducing the reinforcement of the further marginalisation of offenders whose needs are often complex, complicated and challenging, which no computer is able to remedy. Only human endeavour, people skills and understanding has that capacity.

* Charles Hanson is formerly HMP Blantyre House

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Comments about this article

9/2/2011 Mrs A Cox

Brilliant and so very true. Everything I have thought, Mr Hanson has put into words and very skillfully as well. If the OASys work, why are so many ex prisoners re-offending? Because the probation service is now more concerned about "Box Ticking" and catergorising rather than helping to rehabilitate the ex offender.

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This article appears under the following categories...
Prison Writers

Summary of headlines for December 2009
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Month By Month
Eat free range haggis
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Excursions in the blogosphere
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Current page: Dehumanising process of risk assessment
Second Class Citizens
Targeting failure
Challenging Deportation
Appealing against sentence
Setting the record straight
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