Actuarial risk assessments are numerical scoring tools used to help correctional agencies classify, and consequently, place offenders into appropriate custody levels and relevant treatment programming based upon their predicted risk for misconduct or re-offending.
Although women offenders comprise a small percentage of the prison population (7% in the U.S.), they are affected by 100% of the programs, policies, and practices in correctional facilities that were originally designed for male offenders. From a public safety perspective, it is crucial to use gender-responsive risk assessments that are created with women offenders’ social-psychological needs in mind. However, most traditional assessments were designed to predict men offenders’ antisocial behavior, and thus miss important women-specific risk factors associated with their re-offending.
In the U.S., the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) partnered with Dr. Pat Van Voorhis at the University of Cincinnati to develop a suite of gender-responsive risk and needs assessment scoring tools to use with women offenders, known as the Women’s Risk Need Assessment (WRNA). The WRNAs are gender-responsive actuarial risk assessment tools, designed to properly account for women’s risk factors, or criminogenic needs, associated with recidivism and future misconduct.
The WRNA assessment process involves a case file review, a semi-structured interview, a written survey, and a case management treatment plan that are all tailored to women entering various stages of the criminal justice system through three versions: probation, institutional (in prison), and pre-release.
Overall, the WRNA has been effective at predicting women’s recidivism and other re-offending behavior, indicating that the WRNA is a valid tool for classifying adult women offenders. Specifically, items on the WRNA showed statistically significant positive correlations with measures of re-incarceration, technical violations, new arrests, and new convictions.
The WRNA has grown in popularity among practitioners for use with women offenders. Approximately 22 jurisdictions across the United States have implemented the WRNA. Additionally, countries outside the U.S. have begun to show interest in the WRNA, with implementation starting in Singapore, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Namibia. While cultural modifications to the instrument are necessary, the WRNA can begin to facilitate the consistent application of the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders(the ‘Bangkok Rules’).
The development of the WRNA: Starting from ‘women up’
Gender-responsive risk assessment continues to incorporate underlying principles of traditional (gender-neutral) actuarial assessments including the three main principles from the Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) model developed by Canadian criminologists.
In addition to such principles, gender-responsive assessment draws on significant research on the distinct biological, social, and psychological attributes of women. The WRNA takes account of the ‘gendered pathways’ of women into crime which are distinct from their male counterparts. In particular, women offenders have life histories of physical and sexual abuse, trauma, mental illness (e.g., depression, anxiety, Borderline Personality Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), self-medication through substance abuse, unhealthy relationships, parental stress, and low levels of self-esteem and self-confidence (i.e., self-efficacy). The WRNA was also developed with regard to the call for strategies that consider women’s treatment needs through holistic and trauma-informed approaches and techniques.
Thus, the WRNA more effectively assesses criminogenic needs and strengths that are more applicable to women offenders than traditional risk assessments are able to do. The gender-responsive factors assessed include relationship support and conflict, parental involvement and stress, self-efficacy, prior physical and sexual trauma, housing safety, mental health (including depression, anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, psychosis), and anger/hostility. In addition to these gender-responsive factors, the WRNA also measures gender-neutral factors that research has shown are still predictive of women’s recidivism. These consist of past and current substance abuse, criminal history, employment and financial stability, educational strengths and needs, and antisocial attitudes.
In sum, the argument for the implementation of gender-responsive strategies emerged from the recognition of differences in male and female criminal behavior. Based upon crime trends and the voices of women offenders themselves, it is clear that women’s criminality is frequently quite different from that of men. Internationally, women are incarcerated at a much lower rate than their male counterparts. Additionally, women tend to commit lower level offenses such as property and drug crimes in comparison to men. As the types of crimes and pathways into criminal behavior differ between men and women, gender must be in the foreground of offender rehabilitation, the principles of effective intervention, and risk/needs assessment inquiry to adequately account for gender differences in risk factors and treatment needs. Consequently, the WRNA is a central component in the gender-responsive movement as it was created with women’s specific needs and risk factors in mind and is, therefore, better able to classify women offenders for custody/supervision levels and treatment programming.
On the WRNA, including psychometric and validation reports, please visit http://www.uc.edu/womenoffenders/publications.html
The National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women is an excellent clearinghouse of evidence-based and gender-responsive policies and practices. http://cjinvolvedwomen.org/
Additional resources can be found at the National Institute of Corrections (U.S.), please visit http://nicic.gov/womenoffenders
PRI’s work on gender-sensitive risk and needs asssessments
PRI and the Kenya Probation Service are currently implementing a pilot project, funded by the Thailand Institute of Justice, on gender-sensitive community service and probation orders. The project includes research in Kenya on the current practices and experiences of both magistrates and probation staff, and women who have previously served community service or probation orders themselves. The findings will be used to develop gender-sensitive offender assessment tools and guidelines on the design and implementation of community service and probation mindful of women’s needs, as well as relevant training material.
 For an overview of actuarial risk assessment and the RNR model, see Bonta, J., & Andrews, D. A. (2007). Risk-need-responsivity model for offender assessment and rehabilitation(User Report 2007–06). Ottawa, Ontario: Public Safety Canada.
 See Bloom, B., Owen, B., & Covington, S. (2003). Gender-Responsive Strategies: Research, Practice, and Guiding Principles for Women Offenders. Washington, DC: National Institute of Corrections.
 For an overview of female imprisonment rates worldwide, see the World Female Prison Imprisonment List provided by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research.