Youth Risk/Need Assessment: An Overview of Issues and Practices

3. Method

3. Method

This national study was conducted over a four-month period. An international literature search on youth risk/need assessments was conducted. Wide ranges of risk/need tools exist in international jurisdictions. Most of these risk/need assessment tools are modified according to institutional demands but nevertheless use standard determinants of risk and need. While few generic copyrighted risk/need assessment tools exist (i.e., Level of Service Inventory (LSI) and YLS/CMI), Canadian researchers are considered leaders in this area. To limit the breadth of this study we focused on the risk/need assessment tools and practices being used in the Canadian youth justice system. We did not conduct an exhaustive search of international youth jurisdictions for alternative risk/need assessment tools. Many countries appear to be developing testing and evaluating the suitability of the LSI -R and locally developed tools and most assessment tools were originally developed for adult populations.

Where possible, we collected and reviewed risk/need assessment tools currently used in the Canadian youth justice system along with user manuals and/or related policy ( see Appendix 1 for a description of tools ). Given that many of these tools were either modified or locally developed and not subjected to secondary analysis by the research community, there is little peer-reviewed academic literature on these tools. Many of the tools currently in used are quite similar to either the LSI-R or the YLS/CMI (see Appendix 2 and 3 for a list and profile of the tools deployed in each province and territory). A search of the criminal justice abstracts yielded a small number of published peer-reviewed research pertaining to versions of the LSI and YLS/CMI.[10] This research is briefly outlined below.

Some of the information contained in this report is based on knowledge provided by key informants during telephone interviews.[11] We conducted 71 semi-structured, open-ended interviews in all provinces and territories, with the exception of Quebec. The Department of Justice provided initial contact names for each of the jurisdictions. These individuals were identified as people who would assist us in accessing further information and contacts. All contacts were sent an email briefly describing the research and requesting the names of individuals in research/policy, Crown's offices, probation, and open- and secure-custody facilities who would be willing to be interviewed for this project. In some cases, we received email responses that directed us to other individuals within the system; in cases where we did not receive a response we followed up by telephone and subsequent emails. From some jurisdictional contacts we were able to obtain copies of risk/need assessment tools and training manuals. Documentation, including our ethics approval through the University of Toronto, was sent to jurisdictions requiring their own research approval.

3.1 Probation officers

In the initial stages of the study, we intended to interview 10 probation officers from each jurisdiction. This would require us to obtain the names of approximately 20 to 25 probation officers from each jurisdiction, assuming that half would decline to be interviewed and/or could not be accommodated due to scheduling conflicts. We intended to select 10 probation officers randomly from those responding from each jurisdiction.

In some jurisdictions, our initial contact person was in a position to immediately liaise with probation officers and/or their supervisors directly, while in other jurisdictions we were asked to contact probation supervisors and/or regional directors ourselves. A few jurisdictions declined to provide us with access to the numbers of probation officers we requested, or responded to our requests for participation very late in the research process. In these cases, we had to develop alternate methods for accessing information regarding risk/need and probation through key informants (see below).

In total, 29 interviews were conducted with probation officers across the country, but excluding the following jurisdictions: Quebec, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Ontario's Phase I (young offenders aged 12 to 15 at the time of the offence). In jurisdictions where full participation was obtained, our contact person distributed a recruitment email to probation officers. The email explained that participation was voluntary, described the scope of the study and the length of time required for the interview, and asked that interested probation officers contact us either by phone or email. One province provided us with an email list of all youth probation officers and granted us permission to contact them directly via our recruitment email. We then followed up with officers who contacted us and scheduled interviews.

For Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, and Saskatchewan, we developed alternate methods for accessing information. Alberta declined to provide access to more than one probation officer, and so a thorough interview was conducted with this officer. British Columbia preferred that we recruit only probation consultants (who are all senior probation officers) and distributed our email to these individuals province-wide. Following discussion with our jurisdictional contact in Saskatchewan, a decision was made not to pursue interviews with probation officers because the province was undergoing a transitional and training phase. Therefore ,we conducted only one interview with our policy contact in Saskatchewan, who described current practices and their history. Finally, Ontario provided us with the names of four PhaseII (young offenders aged 16 to 17 at the time of the offence) probation officers. Despite repeated efforts, we were not able to contact the policy representative for Phase I during the data collection stage of this project. Thus, we did not receive the names of probation officers working with this client group. Nunavut probation officers were contacted through researchers' personal contacts and asked to participate in the study. After reviewing our ethical review and research questions, the province of Quebec declined to participate in the study because they considered it to be the beginning of the implementation of the YCJA.

The sample of probation officers surveyed was not random as some selection criteria were imposed by the jurisdictions. There may be a respondent bias due to selection criteria. We do not feel that this has significantly impacted the results.

3.2 Crown contacts, custody contacts, and policy/research contacts

For each jurisdiction, we attempted to obtain contact information for youth Crowns, open- and secure-custody managers or superintendents, and policy and/or research contacts from the contacts provided by the Department of Justice. Interviews were conducted with 10 Crown attorneys (in all regions excluding Quebec, Saskatchewan, Nunavut, British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario); 16 policy contacts (excluding Quebec and Ontario Phase I); 9 custody staff (excluding Saskatchewan, Nunavut, Manitoba, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Ontario Phase I, and Newfoundland and Labrador); and 1 police officer in Ontario. These individuals were contacted by phone or email and asked to participate in the study. From each individual we spoke to, we gathered further contact names; thus building a snowball sample of key informants in each jurisdiction. Several provinces requested copies of our ethics approval, copies of the questions we planned to use with each contact, and/or letters from the Department of Justice before agreeing to participate.

3.3 Academic community

Six individuals in the academic research community were interviewed to learn more about the history, research, and uses of tools currently adopted in many jurisdictions.

3.4 Accuracy and consistency

In some instances contacts within jurisdictions provided us with conflicting information. In such cases we attempted to record our best estimation of these practices and deferred to the editorial input provided by the jurisdictional contacts on the draft report. A limitation of the information recorded below on jurisdictional practices is that this research was conducted during a transitional period. Many provinces were in the process of altering their practices of risk and need assessment in anticipation of the YCJA or because of ongoing policy reforms and research.

There was regional variation in assessment practices within each jurisdiction (i.e., rural versus urban). There was also regional variation in the use of terminology describing various stages of the youth justice process and the roles of practitioners. We have chosen to use the following terms for consistency. The term, youth worker is used interchangeably with probation officer. We use extrajudicial measures (alternative measures/diversion), pre-trial detention (bail), and pre-sentence report (predisposition report).


  • [10] Both the YLS/CMI and versions of the LSI are copyrighted by multi health systems.
  • [11] Ethical approval for this study was obtained from the University of Toronto Social Sciences and Humanities Ethics Review Committee ("Risk/Need Assessment and the Youth Criminal Justice Act" Protocol Reference #9006).
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