Designing an Improved Parole Decisionmaking Framework: Validation, Enhancement, and Incorporation of Rhode Island’s Parole Risk Assessment Tool and Policies

Background

Across the United States, criminal justice practitioners, policymakers, and researchers have recognized a growing need to improve statewide corrections systems and implement more judicious parole policies. The national trend in corrections and parole systems signals that different parole populations can experience varying rates of recidivism, affecting how risk information and guidelines are used to predict recidivism and inform parole release decisionmaking in violent and non-violent crime cases and in high, moderate, and low risk recidivism cases.

In Rhode Island, officials recognized an opportunity through the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) to study recidivism among its parole population, the potential factors contributing to recidivism within its parole population, and how to enact policy changes to improve their parole system. Both local jails and state prisons are unified under the State of Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RIDOC), meaning that both misdemeanants and felons are housed in the same system, rather than separated like in other state correctional systems. Additionally, Rhode Island had previously engaged in a justice reinvestment approach that developed evidence-based tools and policies around discretionary parole releases based on certain criteria related to risk and the severity of the commitment offense. Altogether, these characteristics presented an opportunity to reexamine, validate, and update Rhode Island’s risk assessment tool and parole policies.

Taking Action: Examining Risk Assessment Tools and Validating Their Effectiveness

By reevaluating their tools and policies, the Rhode Island Parole Board and RIDOC hoped to ensure that its decisionmaking would continue to be based on cost-effective best practices that enhance public safety and lead to the safe, successful reentry of parolees into communities across the state. The Rhode Island Parole Board contacted BJA’s National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) to request assistance in evaluating its parole risk assessment instrument and to integrate the tool into its parole decision guidelines. BJA NTTAC connected the Parole Board with the Center for Effective Public Policy (CEPP) to study its parole risk factors, determine whether its tool still effectively evaluated the likelihood of recidivism, and incorporate the improved instrument into RIDOC’s existing parole standards and decisionmaking processes.

To complete the risk assessment validation portion of the project, CEPP partnered with Dr. Tammy Meredith of Applied Research Services (ARS) to conduct a data-driven analysis of the Parole Board’s discretionary parole instrument – the assessment of public safety risk (PRA) tool. To evaluate the effectiveness of this tool as part of Rhode Island’s parole decision guidelines, Dr. Meredith focused her research on the 42 percent of total offenders who were eligible for parole in 2012. Of all 1,407 parole-eligible offenders, 28 percent were ultimately released on parole supervision. Within three years, 50 percent of those on parole had been convicted of a new crime or had violated their parole/probation – meeting RIDOC’s official definition of recidivism. Dr. Meredith’s challenge was to use that target group to validate and, if necessary, improve the PRA tool’s ability to predict recidivism and identify those offenders representing the greatest public safety risk.

In updating the PRA tool, Dr. Meredith also considered scores from RIDOC’s Level of Service Inventory-Revised (LSI-R) assessment tool of risk and criminogenic needs, a corrections tool used to inform programming needs and intervention services based on predictions of future criminality. Both the PRA and LSI-R tools used indicators such as basic demographic information, admission type, sentence length and type, offense type, and release type. In addition, eight risk factors, such as commitment offense type and past history of violent assault, informed the PRA model’s scores, grouping parole-eligible offenders by low risk, moderate risk, high risk, or unknown risk of recidivism. Dr. Meredith found that nearly half of the offenders were categorized as “low risk,” and that number increased when accounting for gender, resulting in nearly two-thirds of female offenders grouped into the “low risk” category. Despite these characterizations, the corresponding LSI-R scores indicated that more than half of the parole-eligible offenders fell into the moderate to high categories of risk/needs. Therefore, while there was some overlap between the risk categories of the PRA and LSI-R tools, the discrepancies, especially regarding the differences in rates for male offenders and female offenders, led Dr. Meredith to examine which risk factors could predict recidivism alone, and which combination of factors could improve that prediction.

Ultimately, Dr. Meredith found that the PRA tool did not discriminate, and both the PRA and LSI-R instruments were valid predictors of recidivism for those offenders who were released in 2012 and tracked over the next three years. Additionally, she offered several suggestions on how the PRA tool could be enhanced to become a more effective, accurate predictor of specific outcomes to use in parole decisionmaking. Her recommendations included a series of successive steps, including:

  • Dropping “programs completed” as a PRA risk factor, while keeping the other seven risk factors (commitment offense type, past history of violent assault, parole/probation admission status, prior felony convictions, current age, prison disciplinary severity, and current custody level).
  • Applying separate scoring rules for males and females.
  • Modifying the different risk group cut-points for males and females.
  • Creating more equally sized risk groups among offender groups, with a goal of approximately 30 percent falling into each of the groups (low, medium, and high).

Moving Forward: Incorporating Parole Risk Assessments into More Effective Parole Policies

Validating and improving RIDOC’s parole risk assessment tools was only half the effort though – these risk assessments needed to be fully integrated into the Parole Board’s decisionmaking processes. To accomplish this task, Richard Stroker, Senior Manager at CEPP with expertise in offender transition and reentry, gathered and reviewed RIDOC’s current practices, policies, and statutes. He also looked at the parole guidelines used by the state parole boards in Colorado, Georgia, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas; the Community Corrections Board in Denver, Colorado; and the National Parole Board of Canada.

In reviewing the guidelines used by RIDOC and the Parole Board, Mr. Stroker recognized some issues that, once resolved, could lead to a more simplified process. Namely, Mr. Stroker aimed to:

  • Resolve the potential inconsistencies between the PRA tool and the LSI-R tool.
  • Reduce the 11 “major criteria” for parole release decisionmaking to a set of more streamlined factors, while keeping universally important ones such as risk and severity of a given crime.
  • Reorganize the guidelines model to create a more consistent and transparent decisionmaking process.

Meetings between CEPP and the Parole Board, including Chairperson Laura Pisaturo, resulted in narrowing the major parole release decision factors to just four: the likelihood of recidivism, the severity of the commitment offense, the parole-eligible offender’s criminal history, and the parole-eligible offender’s potential release plan. Notably, these four factors appeared in a number of the guidelines used by the states and jurisdictions mentioned above. As a result of these independent studies and meetings with the Parole Board, Mr. Stroker developed a draft guideline tool that:

  • Uses the risk assessment and severity of the commitment offense as the principal factors guiding release considerations.
  • Incorporates other key issues (listed as aggravating or mitigating factors) identified by the Parole Board members.
  • Formalizes the incorporation of the calculations from the PRA tool and assessments from the LSI-R tool into the Parole Board’s decisionmaking.
  • Provides recommended outcomes based on applying these new guidelines to parole release cases, including how to use the LSI-R assessment to shape the conditions of parole.

As next steps, the Rhode Island Parole Board aims to build on the value of the new parole guideline tool by setting definitions for key terms used in these new guidelines and planning for Parole Board member and staff training related to the new guideline tool upon its adoption. Meanwhile, other corrections and parole/probation departments can review their own parole risk assessment tools to ensure that these instruments account for factors such as gender and cluster potential parolees more accurately and evenly into the various risk groups. In doing so, parole officials can feel more confident in their risk assessments and decisionmaking processes, leading to a more judicious corrections system.

To learn more about CEPP’s efforts related to parole initiatives, visit the National Parole Resource Center here.

BJA NTTAC would like to thank Dr. Tammy Meredith (ARS), Richard Stroker (CEPP), and Laura Pisaturo (Rhode Island Parole Board), who all contributed to the content of this TTA Spotlight.

To submit the work of your organization or community for consideration in a future BJA NTTAC TTA Spotlight, please e-mail nttac@bjatraining.org.

If your community is in need of similar assistance or if you know of a community that would benefit from these types of parole risk assessment studies, please contact BJA NTTAC at nttac@bjatraining.org.