A 15-year old is caught painting graffiti on a local bridge, and when police bring him home with the ticket, his mother tells them to take him in. She is worried because he has been coming home smelling like marijuana, but she’s also frustrated with his attitude in the home. On the other hand, he has an aunt he could stay with, and though he has skipped a few classes lately, he is still doing all right in school.
Is this a child who should be held in a detention facility until his juvenile case can get moving? Will he be a danger if released? Is he likely to appear in court? How can an intake officer decide what the best course is, given limited information and a fraught situation?
Risk inventories are quick gauges that can provide a neutral framework, based on verified factors, to give a reasonable picture of an individual’s level of risk. They are not in-depth evaluations for the purposes of treatment, or detailed enough to provide a perfect, clear picture of an individual. However, used correctly, they can provide a guide for the most appropriate next steps in most situations, and be an effective bar against subconscious bias in decision-making. An officer considering our graffiti artist would not have to make a subjective gut decision, but could assess risk in a neutral way.
Currently, Nebraska probation officers utilize a tool called the Risk Assessment Instrument (“RAI”) at intake for all juveniles brought to detention centers on charges. The RAI asks a series of simple, factual questions about a child, and prescribes points that are to be given based on the answers. Officers are trained in the importance of scoring the child only on objective information, not suspicions or subjectivity. Points are given for demonstrated risk factors like the seriousness of the alleged charge, the child’s history of court involvement, her use of drugs or running behavior. Points can also be subtracted for mitigating “protective” factors, like school involvement or a supportive family member who can provide supervision. This short inventory results in a score that is intended only to capture the child’s likelihood of flight from the jurisdiction or risk to re-offend prior to appearance in court. The more points, the higher the suggested risk, and the more likely that secure detention may be warranted for immediate safety. Fewer points suggest the risk is lower, and it is less likely that the child needs to be detained for safety reasons. The RAI has recommended outcomes for each scoring bucket:
- 5 or less: release home without restriction or intervention
- 6-9: release with an identified service or plan that is an alternative to detention (this includes shelter care)
- 10-11: detain the child in a staff-secure detention facility
- 12: detain the child in a secure detention facility
Let’s practice with our graffiti artist. He would get 6 points for his charge (a non-violent misdemeanor), another point for his mother’s concern about drug use and another for his recent truant behavior, but would have points subtracted for his aunt’s willingness to take him in and his decent grades at school. If this was his first charge, he would likely score 6: release with some kind of safety plan or set of services/supervision in place.
The beauty of the RAI is its simplicity, objectivity, and uniformity. If validated as a fair and reliable predictor of risk, and implemented with fidelity across the state, it could play an important role in dismantling Nebraska’s historic overreliance on juvenile detention generally, and in particular, for youth of color. If used as intended, it can present an intake officer a clear-cut pathway through the swamp of conflicting reports and emotional crisis that can often attend a juvenile arrest.
However, if the RAI doesn’t accurately predict risk, none of these benefits accrue — the intake officer might as well flip a coin to make detention decisions. For this reason, Probation contracted with the University of Nebraska’s Juvenile Justice Institute (JJI) to provide an independent evaluation of the RAI. The results of this evaluation have recently been released, and we encourage you to read the report in its entirety here. For the cliff’s notes version and our takeaways, check back for our follow-up blog next week: “Screening for Risk: the Good, the Bad, and the Unknown in Nebraska’s RAI.”