The Risky Business of Risk Assessment
Correctional authorities in many provinces and territories are utilizing actuarial risk assessment procedures with criminalized adults and youth within their jurisdictions. Although there are some incredibly problematic philosophical issues and extremely challenging practical problems that have been created by attempts to adapt imperfect models of risk assessment(s) designed for adults to the circumstances of youth, there is virtually no research regarding the appropriateness of applying such approaches to youth. This is especially the case when one considers the circumstances of some of our most marginalized young people.
This paper will highlight some of the major challenges and critical issues regarding the use of actuarial instruments. Since there is very little material that directly addresses the issues raised by, or the results of applying, these sorts of assessment approaches to youth, much of this paper will involve analysis and discussion of existing research and writing on the subject. In addition, the following discussion will include extrapolations and application of existing analyses and research results to the most marginalized groups of those who are criminalized. In particular, this paper will focus upon the circumstances of several young women who have been identified as some of the most "criminal" and "violent" youth in Canada by the systems that attempt to control them.
Given the realities and normal range of phases of adolescent development, it would be the rare young person who would not be assessed as challenging authority, under-employed, sexually experimenting, et cetera. In short, it would be the unusual teen whose actuarially assessed risk would be non-existent. The most reliable way to predict which young people will likely be assessed as high risk by actuarial risk assessment tools designed for adults, whether or not they have been adapted for use with/on youth, is to first assess or categorize them on the basis of their respective degrees of disadvantage and marginalization.
Contextualizing the Issues
The proposed changes to the juvenile justice system, the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), particularly the provisions related to moving youth into the adult system, embody many tensions, some of which will be discussed later. On the one hand, the YCJA renders more procedurally and substantively stringent the test as to which young people will be subjected to the adult system. On the other hand, once relegated to that system, all privacy protections are stripped away, thereby reducing future rehabilitative and reform prospects.
This reality is perhaps best exemplified by an examination of some actual cases. To this end, I am appending The Story of K. I also recommend that the situations surrounding transfer applications involving other young people be examined and analyzed in light of the foregoing. The few with which I have been directly involved place the system in sharp relief and reflect the glare of race and class bias. One exception is J.W., a young racialized woman charged with murder, whose counsel conducted a relatively exhaustive review of the deficits of the adult correctional system to which the prosecutorial team wished to see her transferred. Other young, racialized, and disabled women who have been targeted for transfer have not been able to escape the adult system.