Essay: Risk Assessment the Science of Dangerousness

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Risk Assessment

The Science of Dangerousness

Dangerousness refers to the likelihood that a mentally ill person, or criminal will participate in an act that harms themselves or others. The prediction of the dangerousness of mentally ill patients is one of the key conundrums facing psychologists today. They have a responsibility to keep the public safe. Yet, this must be balanced with the need to avoid drastic measures if they are not needed. This is often a difficult decision and psychologists struggle to find the right balance and to devise better methods of assessing risk among their patients that are mentally ill.

There are many factors that can affect the level of risk in an action. These factors represent internal and external variables that may or may not be easily controlled. The existence of these variables makes it difficult to make an accurate assessment of the "dangerousness" involved in an endeavor. This research will support the thesis that the prediction of dangerousness is not a science.

What is dangerousness?

The first task in deciding what dangerousness means and how it differs from risk assessment. Dangerousness is typically used to describe those that have committed violent crimes or that have mental illnesses that create the potential for violence in them. Risk assessment is the act of deciding what the likelihood of a person committing a violent act is. No roadmap exists that can lead to an accurate prediction of whether a person will commit a violent crime or not in the future. Many factors influence the decisions of the individual and circumstances can change that may affect the outcome in the future. Yet, psychologists, social workers, criminologists and other professionals are asked to make recommendations as to the dangerousness of a person and assess their risk to society so that proper actions can be taken that both protect the rights of the individual and society.

One of the more controversial outcroppings of this issue is legislation in Germany and the EU that calls for preventative detention of offenders that have been convicted of certain crimes (Dunkel & van Syl Smit 2004). This law primarily involves sex offenders. The premise of the law is not the source of contention, but rather the execution of it that draws the most criticism. This law provides for a mandatory detention for certain offenders, even if there was no provision for detention in the original sentence (Dunkel & vanSyl Smit 2004). It also allows for the extension of sentences, if the development of the individual in prison indicates that they may commit further serious offenses (Dunkel & vanSyl Smit 2004).

Currently, the law is still under debate. The issues that surround this legislation are the same as those that surround the determination of "dangerousness" in the assessment of certain segments of the population. This legislation makes many assumptions and presumes guilt, rather than looking at the individual and the risk level associated with them. The key criticism is that the legislation is based on generalizations that do not have significant evidence to support them. They are reactionary in nature, rather than based on solid empirical evidence. The rights of the individual dissolve into generalizations, which is one of the key criticisms of the proposed law.

Historical View of Dangerousness

One of the key requirements of a civilized society is devising a means to keep the order and maintain the rules. In a utopian society, there would be no need for a criminal justice system, but this place does not exist. Therefore, man is continually plagued with the problem of how to keep those who commit crimes from continually repeating their actions and disrupting the order to society (Brown and Pratt 2000). Our current view of dangerousness emerged from changes in the social arrangement of modern society. In the past, class, gender, and social structure played a significant role in the assessment of dangerousness (Brown and Pratt 2000). The power structure of the society was weighted towards the upper classes. They had ultimate control over crime, punishment, and the assessment of dangerousness. Risk assessment was often based on a person's station in life, rather than individual circumstances and characteristics. The poorer classes were almost always assumed to be the more dangerous elements of society and were likely to be treated as such.

Our current methods of risk assessment are moving away from categorical assessment of the dangerousness of a person (Brown and Pratt 2000). The power structure and methods for risk assessment that we have today are a result of the intermeshing of knowledge, values, class and gender relations (Brown and Pratt 2000). Social status no longer plays an important role in the classification of the dangerousness of the individual.

Modern risk assessment continues to take a categorical approach (Brown and Pratt 2000). However, the categories that are used today are not based on social status, but are based on risk categories derived from a long, collective history of academic research regarding the tendency towards repeat offenses and further violence or criminal behavior. The categorical approach that we use today, differs from that which was used historically, only in that is uses a different criteria for the establishment of those categories. However, it is still a categorical approach. The following will examine the flaws in a categorical approach to risk assessment for dangerousness.

The Scientific Assessment of Dangerousness

Certain patterns have been associated with increased tendencies towards future repeat offenses or behaviors. Patient, or offender, history plays an important part in risk assessment. As a result, a number of scales have been developed regarding various categories that lead to increased risk. For instance, Marterns and Palermo (2005) found that loneliness had a significant correlation with serial killers.

A significant number of studies exists that correlate "dangerousness" with a certain characteristic. The following examples highlight studies that are used for categorization. Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) has an affect on the daily alcohol consumption and on the occurrence of male to female violence in a partnership (Fals-Stewart, Leonard, and Birchler, 2005). Walsh and Kosson (2006) also found a connection between psychopathy and violence. However, they extended this concept to include sociodemographic predictors of violent crime.

Among the factors studied, the connection between psychopathy and substance abuse appear to have the highest concordance with violent or criminal behavior, as well as recidivism (de Barros and de Padua 2008; Greenfield and Hennenberg 2001; Nathan, Rollison and Harvey 2003; Weltzmann-Henelius, Salias, and Viemero et al. 2002). Although gender can no longer be used as a means to determine punishment, there are still a number of studies that use gender as a means of categorization for the potential for violent behavior (Sobra, Luengo, and Gomes-Fraguela 2007; Yang and Cold 2007).

These studies led to the development of instruments in the form of scales to help assess the risk of dangerousness in individuals (Kennealy, Hicks, and Patrick 2007). However, the accuracy and usefulness of these scales must be questioned on several points of empirical thought. First, there is a question of internal and external validity. These issues are generally addressed in the study itself. However, there are other factors that must be considered before these instruments can be considered a useful means of assessing risk and assigning an appropriate means of control.

The development of these methods was conducted in order to establish an equitable means of assigning dangerousness to an individual using a more empirical means than in the past. This attempt is an improvement over the method of using social hierarchy as a means to assess dangerousness, but from an empirical standpoint, it still has a long road ahead. Now let us examine the current categorical method of assessing risk from an empirical standpoint.

In order to be considered valid from a strictly empirical standpoint, a study must meet several criteria. The results of the study must not be attributable to random chance. In other words, measures must be taken to make certain that the subject of the study is responsible for the effects and that the same results could not be obtained as a result of randomness. Many studies do not have a problem with this element and use a number of statistical methods to make certain that the study performed better than what could be expected from random chance. Those that do not are considered negative, or inconclusive. The studies examined pass the criteria for empiricism on this standpoint.

The second criteria is the study must be repeatable. If someone conducts that same study, under the same conditions as the original, they should get the same results. Some studies have been reproduced in the area of psychology with some success. These concepts would eventually become the principle theoretical tenets of the profession. However, it is often difficult to reproduce tests in the field of psychology. The setting is dynamic and every group of test subjects is unique. In addition, individuals are different and bring a unique set of experiences, attitudes, and values to the test setting. Therefore, it is arguable as… [END OF PREVIEW]

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