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Importance of Risk Assessments to Positive Outcomes for Youth - Juvenile Justice Research Spotlight

Gina Vincent, Associate Professor and Director of Law and Psychiatry, University of Massachusetts Medical School

Dr. Vincent discusses her research on how risk assessment and risk need responsivity affect change in how we handle individuals in the justice system.

What are your general research interests and areas of focus?

My general research interests are in risk assessment, specifically, so my background is in forensic research, forensic psychology. And I'm very interested in looking at how risk assessment, and risk need responsivity, effectuate change in the way that we handle individuals in the justice system, especially juvenile justice. But I've also done some of that work with adults, as well, so I'm very interested in looking at the implementation of these tools and processes, and seeing whether we can improve that to get better outcomes.

What are the key findings of your juvenile justice line of research?

So some of the key findings of this line of research that we're particularly excited about is the significant shift we see in the sentencing of young people, otherwise known as “dispositions” in the juvenile justice system. So we see when a risk assessment and risk need responsivity-based polices are put into place, and everyone's bought into that process that youth are getting less severe sentences, so more youth are being handled informally, or they're being diverted altogether. And significantly fewer youth are being sent to a detention facility, or other form of secure placement at sentencing.

Can you share some implications of your research for policy and practice?

The implications of our research for policy and practice are widespread. I think all of the studies that I have done in the last ten years are specifically about changing policy and practice. Our research has shown what kind of policies work well within probation departments and jurisdictions around implementation of risk assessment. So when should that risk assessment tool be done, how should it be used in case planning, how should that information be shared with judges, and so on. Some of this work has led to legislative changes in some states, which has been prompted largely by the Council of State Governments, based on some of the work that we've done.

What do you hope academics, practitioners, and the public take away from discussions on risk and needs assessments?

What I hope the practitioners and the public will take away from this discussion is that adoption and good implementation of risk assessment in justice settings, if these things are done well and thoughtfully—it leads to much better outcomes for the individuals that are touching the system. I think, on balance, the meta-analyses and the research indicates that when risk assessment is being used, it's leading to better decisions.

What furthers research, development, and collaboration is needed for juvenile justice issues?

So how we can start more collaborations and research initiatives to address this issue? I think where the funding…Some areas where the funding might want to target is really a lot more implementation-related research. We can do a lot of random control trials, but we've found, through just one random control trial, that you can never find two probation offices that operate similarly.

I don't care how you randomize them. It makes the outcomes very difficult to compare, and it makes things very difficult to generalize. So in general, I'd just love to see more research that's got a grounding in implementation science. But I also think, in order to sustain good practice in these reform efforts, we should put more time into developing and researching models for coaching, supervision, and feedback. That's an area that I think has been really understudied in the justice system.

How was working with NIJ helped your efforts to research juvenile justice issues?

We could not have possibly done the research that we have conducted without NIJ's support. The type of work that we've been doing over the last  ten years has involved working with probation offices and jurisdictions for a year, to just help them implement risk assessment and risk need responsivity-types of policies. There's no way we could have done that work without the funding and support of NIJ. And just having the name of NIJ behind us, that sort of influences jurisdictions being willing to work with us. And then there's great advisors and program officers at NIJ, who help us problem-solve and think about how the research should be conducted, moving forward.

Date Created: May 21, 2020