A recent Associated Press story on risk assessments, performed to determine the likelihood that someone involved in the criminal justice system will re-offend, contains several common misunderstandings. By taking a closer look at a few of these misconceptions, we hope to clarify some major points about risk assessment overall.
Misconception 1: Low Risk = No Risk
A common misconception is that people deemed to be at a low risk of reoffending have no risk of doing so. The AP report highlights stories of three individuals assessed as low risk who were ultimately rearrested for committing violent crimes. One story involved Milton Thomas, described by the AP as having been “in and out of Arkansas prisons since 2008 for nonviolent crimes, including check fraud.” Thomas told the reporters he had been evaluated low risk by the state of Arkansas.
Thomas is currently awaiting trial for the alleged sexual assault of a 70-year-old woman.
Assuming that Thomas actually was assessed as low risk (although the article seems to rely only on Thomas’s word only), it’s important to note that low risk does not mean no risk. In fact, we know with certainty that for every group of low-risk individuals, some portion will go on to reoffend, albeit at asignificantly lower rate than individuals in moderate- and high-risk groups. Risk assessments are absolutely, statistically better at determining risk than the old ways of doing things (e.g., basing decision on a “gut instinct”), which were often less useful than flipping a coin.
When risk assessments are performed on individuals, they really tell us what risk group someone belongs to, rather than their individual risk of re-offense.
Misconception 2: All Assessments Are Created (or Conducted) Equally
The AP story reports that “an Arkansas consultant said a majority of male parolees and probationers were classified as low risk by the state’s Department of Community Correction but 46 percent were rearrested within 18 months.”
Another common misconception is that all assessments are of equal quality and efficacy and are conducted with equal skill. If the AP story is correct and 46 percent of these low-risk individuals were rearrested, it is almost certain that the risk assessment tool is being used incorrectly or has not been validated on the population to which it is being applied. Or administrators may simply have set cut-off scores that are unlikely to create any meaningful distinction between low-risk and high-risk groups. There are many examples of states and jurisdictions where risk assessments are being used properly, are properly validated, and where low-risk groups have recidivism rates of 5 percent or less.
The AP story also states:
…before Thomas was released the parole board assessed him as a high risk to commit more crimes. But a second risk assessment, conducted by the state’s community supervision agency, found him to be a low risk, Thomas told the AP. Thomas said he has no recollection of answering questions from the lengthy survey.
Again, the story gets information directly from Thomas, but assuming the information is true, it seems likely the risk assessment was not conducted appropriately.
It’s important to note, too, that some assessments don’t measure general risk; rather, they measure propensity for specific types of behavior (domestic violence, for example). Because we don’t know much about the assessments Thomas underwent, it’s difficult to explain or verify what actually happened. Understanding that not all assessments are created (or conducted) equally, though, is crucial to understanding risk assessment overall.
Misconception 3: Risk Assessments Prevent Crime
Another frequent misconception is that risk assessments themselves prevent crime. The AP story identifies another extreme case in which a crime occurred despite the use of risk assessments, and they seem to suggest that risk assessments are somehow meant to prevent crime.
Had Vann scored higher on the Static-99R [a risk assessment], Texas would have sent postcards to the community where he was living—if he was living in Texas. But Vann moved to Indiana after his release.
About one year later, 19-year-old Afrika Hardy was found dead in a Motel 6 bathtub 20 miles southeast of Chicago.
Risk assessments by themselves do not prevent crime. And it’s a mistake to suggest not only that flawed risk assessments lead directly to tragic crimes, but also that sending postcards to a community—or any specific intervention—can directly prevent such crimes.
Misconception 4: Risk Assessments Are Responsible for Bad Data
It’s important to know that risk assessments are only as effective as the data being used to develop them.The AP story refers to a Florida teen who completed a risk-assessment questionnaire (the PACT) and was deemed low risk to commit another crime. One mitigating factor was the teen’s self-reported “good group of friends,” the story reads. But when a prosecutor took a closer look, she determined this group of friends had “attempted a drive-by shooting of [the teen’s] house because they said he owed them money.” The story continues:
The assessment “is completely flawed,” Schneider [the prosecutor] said in court. “They were obviously depending just on the information this young man was providing himself”…
The case is a perfect example of “garbage in, garbage out,” Schneider said in an interview. “I continue to see where the PACT does not reflect the reality.”
Schneider is absolutely correct in her “garbage in, garbage out” judgment. Yet, this doesn’t indicate that risk assessments themselves are flawed but that they can be fed bad data. Most structured assessments require the assessor to verify information in available records, including criminal history, disciplinary records from prison, assigned prison programming, past supervision, etc.
When jurisdictions are following best practices, bad data should rarely find their way into an assessment leaving us with increased confidence in the outcomes of these tools.
What The Story Gets Right
Despite containing several common misconceptions, the AP story still got a few things right. For instance, Adam Gelb, director of The Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Performance Project, said:
“States and localities and all the jurisdictions that are working on risk assessment right now, they’re in different places with respect to their ability to implement a good risk assessment. But it’s absolutely critical that they do.”
He couldn’t be more correct. Not every jurisdiction that uses risk assessment uses it perfectly, but it’s crucial that every jurisdiction work toward that end. U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) told the AP:
“I think you ought to have some assessment and do the best you can and keep updating it based on the research. But you ought not be afraid of a system that’s working on average because of one anecdote.”
There will always be instances in which an individual judged to be low risk goes on to commit another crime—as mentioned above, we know this will be the case. This doesn’t invalidate risk assessment in general, though, which, as Rep. Scott says, are crucial components in a triaging system that does much good, though there continues to be productive discussion about how and where risk assessments can be best used.
Solomon Graves, the administrative services manager of the Arkansas Parole Board (not, as the report claims, a member of the state parole board), told the AP: “Over time the tools will become more dependable. ‘We’re never going to have a 100-percent predictive tool,’ he said. ‘We’ll never be there.’”
This is absolutely true: No tool will ever be 100 percent accurate. But Graves makes an important point—that continuing to improve assessments will only make them, and the system overall, better.
Life’s Most Difficult Lesson
Lessons are an ongoing part of life. Although an academic education comes to an end, we never cease learning vital spiritual lessons. The truths that God teaches us are invaluable and practical because they affect our character development, choices, and lifestyle. Their influence reaches beyond our earthly lifetimes all the way into eternity.
One of the most difficult faith lessons we will ever learn is to wait upon the Lord. Maybe you are facing a critical decision and don’t know which way to go. Or perhaps you have been praying about a certain matter, but God is simply not responding. Is a difficult or painful situation wearing you down because there’s just no end in sight?
At such times, the only thing we want is instant relief or immediate direction, yet Psalm 27:14 says, “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord.” To wait for the Lord means to remain in your present circumstances or environment until He gives further instruction. Far from encouraging passivity, this verse calls for an active choice to be at rest, trusting in God and His timing. It’s not a cessation of daily activities but an internal stillness of spirit that accompanies you throughout the day.
Why God Lets Us Wait
Waiting is especially tough when a situation is stressful or a decision must be made soon. But understanding why the Lord hasn’t answered our prayers, brought relief, or given direction can help us trust in His wisdom and timing.
Sometimes we are not ready for the next step. God has plans for us, but there are instances when He stops us in our tracks until we do a little “internal housecleaning.” Maybe we have been tolerating a sin in our life or need to deal with bad attitudes or ungodly thought patterns. The Lord has places to take us, and He knows what baggage needs to be left behind.
The delay could also have the purpose of training us for His calling. David was anointed king when he was a young man, but he spent many years in the wilderness, fleeing from Saul. Through all the difficulty, God refined his character and sharpened his leadership skills. When the time was right, He brought him to the throne.
In the same way, God may keep you in an uncomfortable place, a boring job, or a challenging situation. But remember this: He is preparing you for something far better. Cooperate with His training program while you wait, knowing that His plans for you are good.
Perhaps all the details of God’s will are not yet in place. The Lord is the master of time and sovereignly works out all the specifics of His grand design for humanity. No amount of prayer or fasting will move His hand until He is ready. When Moses saw the oppression of the Israelites, he tried to right the situation by killing an abusive Egyptian (Ex. 2:11-12). But the Lord used this situation to redirect him to the desert for 40 years until the king of Egypt died (vv. 23-25). Then He set His plan of deliverance in motion using a much humbler 80-year-old Moses.
At times the Lord’s delays are designed to increase our faith. If He instantaneously gave us everything we wanted, we would never learn to walk by faith. But when we have only a promise from the Scriptures with no visible evidence to rely upon, then our faith is put to the test. Will we believe Him or our circumstances? By confidently clinging to God’s Word and knowing that He has never failed to fulfill His promises, we will eventually see the evidence of His faithfulness every time.
The Lord wants to teach us endurance. Like it or not, the ability to persist under difficult circumstances is an absolutely essential ingredient of the Christian life. Scripture tells us that “tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). Our hardships are designed, not to crush us but to refine us into the image of Christ. When we abide under the pressure with complete reliance on the Lord for His strength and perspective, we come out of the process looking more like our Savior.
Perhaps our attention needs to be refocused on Christ. It’s easy to become so absorbed in our own concerns that we forget about Him, but nothing grabs our attention like a difficult or confusing situation. If God doesn’t rush to give an answer or fix the problem, then we, in our desperation, start to make Him our main focus. However, there is a difference between seeking the Lord and seeking His intervention. If our thoughts are only on what we want Him to do for us, we’ve missed the mark. To wait for the Lord means our focus is on Him, not simply on our desired outcome.
My deficiencies in life are all a result of me not having patience and faith in God’s plan for my life. As He has matured me to understand that His word is my strength, knowledge and protection my life has been so much better.
How We Are to Wait
The fruitfulness of our time in God’s waiting room is very dependent upon our attitudes and mindset in the process. Fretting and pacing not only fail to speed things up; they also result in emotional turmoil. The Lord has a better way.
Wait patiently, quietly, and dependently. This kind of attitude is possible only for those who have submitted to the Lord’s authority over them. If we believe and accept that He has our best interests at heart and can work it all out for our good, then we are able to rest in His right to choose the method and timing. When we truly trust Him, there will be no maneuvering, manipulating, or rushing ahead.
Stand upon God’s Word. The Bible is our anchor in times of waiting. One of the wisest things you can do is to read the Scriptures every day, asking God to give you passages which will bring stability to your life. As I look back in my old Bibles as well as in my present one, I see marked verses that carried me through the tough times. Don’t merely rely on prayer when you experience difficulty or require direction. Hang on to a specific word from God that will give you His perspective and promise in your situation. Then you can confidently pray, “Lord, here is what You promised me in Your Word. And You can never go against Your promises, so I will cling to this truth while I wait upon You.”
Wait confidently, believing Him. Having submitted ourselves to God and anchored ourselves with His Word, we can confidently watch for His will to unfold. He knows exactly what to do and when to accomplish it. He has the power to rearrange any detail to bring about His desired plan. All we have to do is believe Him and watch for His intervention or direction.
Hindrances to Waiting
Knowing that the unfolding of God’s will comes to those who patiently wait for Him, why do we so often go our own way instead?
We live hurried lifestyles. Our culture is action-oriented. To be still and wait for direction from God seems counterproductive, so we jump in to get results. Besides, sitting quietly with the Lord takes too much time. We prefer to ask Him for guidance in the car on the way to work. Our schedules are full, and the prospect of spending uninterrupted, unhurried time seeking the mind of Christ seems impossible. But that is the only way to hear His voice and know His heart.
We have a short-term perspective. Fast food restaurants, express checkouts, and drive-through coffee shops are proof of the “have it now” mentality in our society. If you doubt this, watch the impatience of people standing in line at the supermarket or sitting at a traffic light. We want everything quickly, but there’s no fast track to spiritual maturity, and learning to wait on the Lord is a crucial element in the development of godly character. Our demand for immediate gratification has blinded us to the benefits of waiting for a greater reward. By learning to trust the Lord and rely on His timing, we will experience recurring benefits throughout our lifetime and in heaven as well.
We seek the advice of others. Where do you go when you don’t know what to do? If you get on the phone and describe your situation to three or four friends, you will very likely receive different advice from each one. Although the counsel of others can be valuable, it should always be filtered through the truth of God’s Word. Make it a habit to seek the Lord’s guidance before going to any outside source. After all, He alone knows the specific plans He has for you.
We doubt that God will come through for us. When deadlines for decisions loom or unwanted situations remain unchanged, we might begin to wonder if the Lord will ever intervene. Our circumstances shout, “God has forgotten about you!” However, just because we can’t see anything happening doesn’t mean the Lord is uninvolved. His eyes roam throughout the earth “that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His” (2 Chron. 16:9). When your eyes can’t see the evidence, trust what you know is true.
The Results of Waiting
What can we expect from the Lord if we choose to let Him direct our path? First of all, He promises to hear and answer those who wait patiently for Him (Ps. 40:1) and give them clear instructions so they can follow His path (Ps. 25:4-5). They will also experience all the good He has in store for them, since they’ve remained in His will instead of running in their own direction (Lam. 3:25).
One of the most surprising results will be increased strength (Isa. 40:31). Normally,we feel strong when we are actively taking charge, plotting our course, and making things happen. But the Lord’s ways are so different from ours. He promises to strengthen the one who remains still and quiet before Him, actively listening for His voice. He empowers us to endure the wait, and when He finally speaks, He gives us the strength to do what He says.
I don’t know what you are waiting for, but I do know that if you believe what God tells you in His Word and patiently rest in His choice and timing for your situation, you’ll experience a new spirit of joy and confidence. You see, the Lord is always faithful to those who seek Him and watch for His plans to unfold right on schedule. He never fails to come through. Believe His promises and rest confidently in the assurance of Isaiah 49:23: “Those who hopefully wait for Me will not be put to shame.”
Questions for Further Study
To make the most of your time in God’s waiting room, ask yourself these questions:
- Where is my focus? Where is Jeremiah’s focus in Lamentations 3:19-20? What deliberate change does he make in his thinking, and what are the results (vv. 21-23)? How does this new perspective transform his attitude about his situation and the Lord’s purposes for him (vv. 24-26)?
- Where is my strength? Read Isaiah 40:27-31. When it seems as if the Lord has forgotten us, how can the description of Him in verse 28 stabilize our faith? What does He promise to give those who wait for Him? According to Isaiah 30:15-21, where is our strength found? Describe the outcome of refusing God’s way and running ahead of Him in our own strength. What will He do if we wait for Him?
- Where is my hope? In Psalm 130:5, where does the psalmist place his hope while he waits? How can we know God will keep His word (Isa. 55:10-11)? How do the preceding two verses (vv. 8-9) reassure us when the delay is long or the process is confusing? What are the benefits of believing God while we wait (Rom. 15:13)?