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Risk Assessment and Structured Decision Making Validation Study and System Assessment Summary Report (SDM)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Five years ago, the District of Columbia’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) began to explore a new methodology for how it determined the appropriate level of restrictiveness of placement for newly committed youth. DYRS developed and implemented a structured decision making (SDM) system, explicitly linking two key factors to placement decisions: the likelihood that a youth will reoffend (risk) and the severity of a youth’s committing offense. In the SDM system, a research‐based instrument classifies each young person as high, medium, or low risk to reoffend. This is cross‐indexed with the committing offense severity level – also assigned as high, medium, or low – to determine the recommended restrictiveness of placement.

Through a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) and in collaboration with AECF and DYRS, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) has performed a risk assessment validation and review of the SDM system. The primary goals of this study were to measure the effectiveness of DYRS’s placement methodology and offer suggestions for improvement. This report focuses primarily on key findings and recommendations from the validation study.

The key findings of the validation study include:

1. DYRS’s risk assessment tool is validated

The risk assessment instrument currently used by DYRS successfully classifies committed youth into three groups according to their likelihood of re‐arrest, with youth designated “low‐risk” least likely to recidivate and those assigned to the “high‐risk” category most likely to recidivate.

2. There are specific, actionable steps that DYRS can take to improve the tool

By re-weighting certain parts of the risk assessment tool to emphasize the information most predictive of future offending, DYRS can improve the tools ability to classify youth based on risk. Similarly, the agency can adjust how some questions on the assessment are asked in order to elicit clearer, more consistent responses, and therefore more reliable outcomes. For example, replacing an item shown in this validation study to have no impact on risk (parental supervision) with a new one that is correlated with future arrest (previous out‐of‐home placement by the District’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA)), would improve the tools predictive power.

3. By clarifying how the SDM tool is used, and the how it is intended to influence decision-making, DYRS can build both internal and external confidence in the tool

Researchers found wide-spread support for the use of an objective risk assessment tool to guide placement decision making. DYRS’s use of the SDM, however, is hamstrung at times by a lack of clarity regarding how and when the tool is to be used. Through clearer articulation of the SDM’s role in influencing placement decisions, a retraining of DYRS staff on the tool, more consistent communication with external stakeholders regarding how the tool classifies youth, and targeted evaluation of the tool’s use by agency decision-makers, DYRS can build confidence in the SDM as a cornerstone of informed decision-making.