Sunday, June 15, 2014

Risk Assessment

Most risk assessment articles in my field show small results.  The studies examine how well a particular "instrument," that is, a structured test or evaluation, predicted recidivism in violent and/or sexual offenders. Here is an example from this spring, "What does it mean when age is related to recidivism among sex offenders?" I chose it because it is in this month's pile and it's pretty good.  There isn't anything earth-shaking here, but it adds to our sum of knowledge a bit.  The takeaway: the age of an offender at first offense or index offense is a better predictor of recidivism than his age at release.  There is this thought that offenses decrease as offenders age, and this is true, However, not that much, and age at first offense tells us more - the younger, the worse.

All this according to a the predictions of a single test. There are dozens of tests.  Why not just one, really good test?  Well, because none of them fit that description.  Some tests are better predictors among adolescents, or among the mentally ill, or the developmentally delayed.  Some predict future sexual offense poorly but future violent offense well.  Some are sensitive to changes, and so can tell us if a treatment is working.  Others are actuarial and the scores don't change much: the number of years you were in school, the amount of abuse you received as a child, how long you lived with a bio parent - these numbers are going to be the same 5 years later.

I notice in online discussions that people bring their opinions to the data quite a bit - even the professionals in related disciplines will strongly declare that the presence of a strong father is strongly protective against offending, e.g "I have never treated an offender who was raised in an intact, nonabusive family!"  Really?  I can think of lots, including my own father, and this isn't even my specialty.

One of the difficulties in measuring is that these are events that don't occur often, even among the worst offenders.  If you went to a psychologist and said "I'd like some help in reducing a behavior I only do every few years or so," she would shake her head and say it would be hard to know if treatment were working.  Whether the treatment was behaviorist, insight-oriented, or medical, there just isn't enough data to gauge its effect. Yet we would think that someone raping or murdering every few years was quite a lot.  Therefore, we try to look at large groups of offenders to see if there are clues. But offenders are not all alike, and we don't know what groups to divide them into to measure our predictive ability.  Does this test work on all races? All ages? In different countries?

My personal turnaround in looking for that kind of one-stop shopping for recidivism answers came in the Q & A of a conference in the 1980's.  A woman who was trying to get a non-profit started to do something-or-other about violent pornography - ban it, restrict it, keep it away from inmates, I don't remember - asked the presenter at the end of the day "Do you think exposure to pornography (and here she went into a tangent about tits negative portrayal of women, its availability, etc) contributes to recidivism?"  She clearly wanted only one answer.  The presenter looked down and shook his head. "Well, it might.  Some studies have shown a weak effect. I'll say possibly yes.  But I'll tell you this:  I'd give any of the guys in my program a whole stack of magazines before I let him have even a single can of beer."

Of course. Duh.  What was I thinking?

Among those who have been convicted, brain injury, developmental delay, and substance abuse are the biggest predictors of future offense. Well ahead of the others. However, those populations, taken as a whole, don't show much greater incidence of offense.  It's just that if they are offenders, it's really hard to fix.  Arson and abusing animals are warning signs.  Age of first offense. Parental abuse or neglect are in the mix, but it is hard to sort out whether this is because you received the parent's abuse or their genes.

Anyway, it's not simple.


james said...

Sort of the opposite from my field. We've evolved some pretty decent models, but it isn't possible to say "that event was type X" when all you have left is the debris. Most debris fields that have this or that feature of X are from completely different types of events ("Altarelli cocktail"), so we have to use many different tests to get a probability that we wound up with such and such a number of "X" events.

You get to say "Joe is an abuser" with perfect confidence, but apparently with no models useful for predicting.

Roughly what sorts of ratios are you talking about for "has risk factor" to "is abuser"? 1000:1 ?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I actually don't know that. People are seldom evaluated unless there is a belief that there has been some crime.

Murder rates are on the order of 0.001 - 0.01% in American populations, just off the top of my head. But we know when a murder is committed. We only have estimates for the number of rapes or molestations.

lelia said...

So interesting and surprising. I'm going to need to revise some things I thought I knew.

lelia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Retriever said...

Just my ten cents on porn (as a cranky but not squeamish mom). I think it was relatively harmless before vcrs and DVDs and the internet. Thebporn I mercilessly teased my baby brother about was barebreasted National Geographic natives, and Playboy magazine. Harmless. But I do believe that the snuff films and the revolting stuff teen boys grow up watching not only warp normal boys' attitudes swx (gee, I wonder girls grow up thinking they have to dress and act like porn stars to be noticed let alone thought desirable! Girls now have a choice: to be sluts, or (like my daughters and their female academic peers in decent schools) to more or less opt out of the disgusting meat market that is modern social life between the sexes. I would argue that troubled and at risk lids are affected in more dangerous ways by these films. They don't just act like jerks socially, but might hurt women or other men.

On another note, I have worked w kids all my life and tend to enjoy the bad ones (probably because ai was such a goody two shoes). But also because most of them are deeply hungry for benevolent sober figures in their lives (with narcissistic, self-indulgent, often substance-abusing , physically abusive parents and absent fathers. They sense you care when you read them the riot act for bad behavior, exhort to work hard, help with a hard subject, etc

On the other hand, tho I am pretty good at diagnosing special ed kids and assorted psych disorders, I continue to be blindsided by sociopathy in kids. And that's where the rubber meets the road. You realize it eventually, but I still get taken at first by kids, when I am unwary, or feeling sorry for a bad situation.

I remember expatiatibg about the piety of young J in my religion class when I was a chaplain at a child welfare agency only to be told by my loving but street smart nun boss that he had deliberately set fire to the apartment where his mother and baby sister were sleeping, killing them, after an argument. So I value consultation w peers...sometimes, obviously, hair on the back of your neck warns you, and you ignore such intuitions at your peril. profiling by pheromone?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

One would think so, Retriever; that seems intuitive to most of us. Yet sexual crime continues to go down. My theory was the opposite, and I said so, loudly, starting 30 or more years ago. But reality hasn't backed me up on this.

Retriever said...

Apologies for earlier fat-fingered typos (touchscreen Windows phone...gaaah!)

I'm glad to hear it if sexual crimes have gone down. And if perhaps watching that dreck siphons off certain energies (unintentional choice of words) so that the abuse and exploitation stays virtual and imaginary, perhaps better that.

What do you think of the rather horrible theory espoused on Freakonomics that the reason why we have less of certain kinds of crime now has nothing to do with there being fewer young men of a certain age, but rather with ROe vs Wade. Their theory was that many of the worst potential parents aborted their babies, so fewer kids grew up in truly appalling homes, abused, tormented, never wanted.
As someone who believes in the right to life (and used to work for a Catholic agency that sheltered and loved teenaged girls whom it kept together with their babies, got thru high school, helped them get work, go to college, etc, and also a place that took in thousands of abused and neglected kids whose mostly single mothers with serial boyfriends had vicioiusly tormented, sometimes sexually), I find this a ghastly theory but wonder if it might have any validity. I worked with hundreds of kids who would say sentimentally that "my mom is always there for me". THe mom who never bothered to use birth control and who thought abortion was murder, but who also couldn't keep her legs together and who kept screwing around with multiple different men, many of whom abused her kids. I also worked with crack babies. I felt quite OT vengeful towards their mothers--the nuns (who were far more compassionate than I was then) kept me away from them, and made me stay with the kids. The thing is, I'm also reminded of the arrogance and racism behind much of the initial impetus for Planned parenthood, ie: the belief by many rich liberals that certain people "shouldn't" breed, and that one should limit undesirables. SO when I heard that Freakanomics theory, part of me could assent that there are many horrible women who have kid after kid whom they don't bother parenting properly and to whom they are cruel. Maybe the worst ones have had abortions?

On the other hand, I read somewhere (where?) that the majority of women having abortions are not in fact impoverished single women or terrified teenagers who think their dad will kill them if they're pregnant, or victims of incest (the groups we get told about all the time) but are in fact middle class married women who simply don't want more children. I can't honestly believe that abortions of convenience or for the sake of money are what has cut down the production of criminals.

I'm not sure if it was on your blog, but I wonder if part of the reason for the drop in certain types of crime isn't that we now have so many people locked up in jail. It's an appalling waste of money, and cruel to most of them, but certainly with sexual crimes, whether child molestation or rape, the people tend to be repeat offenders and to have other issues. So if we have draconian laws for one political purpose, it's possible it inadvertently swept up a lot of the rapists and sexual sadists in the process.

Or I could just go all enviro-apocolayptic on you and say it's because like the alligators in FLorida, everybody's sex hormones are going to hell, because of BPA (endocrine disruptors) and cellphones in pockets, and other things in modern life that diminish testosterone and also diminish men's interest in women (maybe we women have become unattractive and obnoxious and because we are now coworkers, don't seem mysterious and desirable any more?)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Goodness that was enjoyable. Even though it was a long comment, you hit a lot of buttons in a short time. The Wall St Journal did a takedown on the abortion claim in Freakonomics, reprinted at Sailer's.

That should give you some comfort, anyway.

Retriever said...

Those articles made me feel better...

Sam L. said...

Another cartoon with an ABBA reference.

staffanspersonalityblog said...

The Lewitt fiasco is disturbing. All you have to do is claim something nonsensical that makes a good story and then bury critics in a mountain of data that most people can't sort out. Then it's inconclusive and becomes again about who is the better storyteller, who is more charismatic etc. What a truly rotten person Lewitt must be.

staffanspersonalityblog said...

The Lewitt fiasco is disturbing. All you have to do is claim something nonsensical that makes a good story and then bury critics in a mountain of data that most people can't sort out. Then it's inconclusive and becomes again about who is the better storyteller, who is more charismatic etc. What a truly rotten person Lewitt must be.