top of page

Risk Assessment is counter-productive to just outcomes.

Unpublished essay on risk management in New Zealand prison from my undergraduate psychology and anthropology university studies. I share my essays to track my growth and evolution through my research process and writing but also to inspire other academics at different stages of the journey. I have currently completed my Bachelor of Arts double majoring in psych and social anthropology and am currently working on my Masters of Arts Social Anthropology.

Essay submitted: 07/09/2022


Risk management in the corrections is a crucial process within this system, it serves as a function of security that assesses prisoners' risk and probability of reoffending, however risk management is also discriminatory.

In this essay I will begin by defining risk management in depth and how this relates to prisoners within the system and the purposeful role risk assessment plays within the prisons and how it contributes to biased and neoliberalism. I will then discuss these debates further surrounding the biased towards Māori and how we as Psychologist have contributed to this not only in the past but also currently in the present.

What is risk management?

A defined definition of risk management depends on the context and setting but a general definition is that risk management is the process of identifying, assessing, controlling, minimizing, and predicting different threats. Statistical prediction (more recently known as actuarial risk assessment) facilitates the management of institutional resources by identifying in advance events considered to be dangerous (Silver & Miller, 2002). Actuarial risk assessment assesses the probability of an adverse event by scoring patient characteristics according to the presence or absence of a predetermined set of risk factors (Large & Nielssen, 2011). The assessments of risks take place with a variety of algorithms using particular input and scoring ratings. Risk management is seen as a key role in predicting future harm. It is from this knowledge that plans, policies and outcomes for the future are decided. Risk management tools are widely adopted in many settings like mental health and corrections and used as a guide when making decisions and supposedly to improve accuracy on predictions.

What is the purpose of risk management in New Zealand corrections?

There are now over 10,000 prisoners, giving NZ one of the highest prison rates in the developed world, over 210 per 100, 000 (Boyle & Stanley, 2017) so as to manage this risk management just like many other countries across the world, police officers, judges, and parole boards are now turning to sophisticated algorithmic risk assessments to guide increasingly important decisions (Fredrickson, 2022) in a what some would call a questionable attempt to manage risk for the general public but to also remove racism and bias that judges and other personnel's in a role of power like on the parole board might subconsciously have, although we can see which I will discuss further down in this essay that the algorithm systems aren’t always necessarily unbiased or discriminatory as an individual is placed within a category according to how highly they score on an algorithm of factors statistically (Szmukler & Rose, 2013).

Risk management's main purpose in the corrections structure is to assess a criminal's risk of reoffending, their suitability for community-based detentions and if they are at a low or high risk of causing harm to themselves or others.

Risk assessment in the corrections structure looks at many inputs of childhood, previous offending, addictions, and many other factors and assessing how this person is best managed and if that is in a prison sentence or able to safely be released back out into the community.

What are the debates of risk management?

A significant proportion of mental health professionals doubt the value of structured risk assessments in their clinical work (Szmukler & Rose, 2013) and I mention this in relation to corrections because they go hand in hand, 91% of prisoners have a lifetime diagnosis or substance use disorder (Smith, 2016), this is a huge number of prisoners.

Risk management aides in the transition from society to captives and keeping them on the premise that if they tick these boxes, we can decide that they deem to high of a risk for rehabilitation, meaning recovery is reduced and growing a society of marginalized captives (Arrigo, 2013). Focusing on the management of risk, begins to discriminate against our Māori and Indigenous people are they are going to be meeting the factors that will class them as high risk, causing a bias. So, introducing the algorithm removes the bias of humans but it increases the bias for those pre-exposed to conditions and factors deemed as high risk and removes the human aspect of risk management, it continues the ongoing practice of neoliberalism and processes of colonization.

What are the implications of risk management?

“Actuarial models utilize risk factors that fall within four domains: dispositional factors like demographic factors and personality factors; historical factors including both social and criminal history; contextual factors – perceived stress and social support; and clinical factors such as substance abuse” (Coombes & Te Hiwi, 2007). Actuarial methods of risk assessment rely heavily on static predictors, and these are often factors unchangeable by individual effort and ability to assess risk is severely limited (Large & Nielssen, 2011). The implication of risk management is that it lacks consistency and is not unbiased. Professionals are in the unenviable position of being expected to be able to prevent risk to others by mentally disordered people, to protect individuals from their own actions, to allay public anxiety and to ensure continued public support for community-based care (Langan, 2010) but the algorithms that these clinicians are working with are inconsistent. This creates inconsistent results and begins the question of how much risk is this really managing and who is this discriminating against?

Attempts to develop actuarial tools for use in sentencing have run aground largely due to methodological concerns surrounding the issue of predictive accuracy (Silver & Miller, (2002) The inability of instruments to distinguish between the risk of common but less serious harms and comparatively rare catastrophic events is a particular limitation of the value of risk categorizations. (Large & Nielssen, 2011) so there are many scenarios that can play out from this. The first being that those who are high risk, may not be accurately identified as they may not meet all factors in the statics, the second being that those who are high risk of reoffending may not be offered opportunity of rehabilitation thus ensuring that actually they most likely will reoffend again and thirdly that those deemed as low risk do not receive the potential of care they need.

Risk management devalues patients by often screening without their consent, knowledge or involvement of the prisoner (Langan, 2010) without this collaboration between the clinician and the prisoner a true picture of rehabilitation and risk cannot be accurately formed as trust and communication should be a big part of risk management, but it is not.

Māori are particularly vulnerable to adverse early-life family and environmental factors which may contribute to subsequent offending behavior (McIntosh & Workman, 2017) these early life and family experiences may be factors that rank them higher on the reoffending risk causing bias anti-racism, making the algorithm and risk assessments a process that continues to systematically colonize.

What are the affects of risk assessment on just outcomes?

There is bias intertwined and weaved with risk assessment as I have discussed, but also using the algorithm loses the human touch and the approach is not just about dealing with an offender anymore through multiple disciplines, but reconceptualizing the problem itself as one that concerns not just the offender, but the system within which that person lives and operates, (Freiberg, 2011) a statistic in the system. Risk management puts the offender into categories but does not take into account factors that may exist after or outside of prison. Because the prisoner is judged by this assessment and factors that they may or may not fall into this can and could prevent prisoners from having access to opportunities and rehabilitation services, those who are classed as high risk may have outside factors like a strong community base, strong cultural relations, a good support network that would make them at lower risk of reoffending, but because they are judged by an algorithms that doesn’t take that into account and causing many potential unjust outcomes.

The affects of risk assessment in situations like this also have an effect on the prisoner's family, community and contributing further to the bias, incarceration impacts not only those who are behind the wire but also the whanau and communities they come from (McIntosh & Workman, 2017) and now those associated with the offender themselves would also be discriminated against under the algorithm as they would begin ticking boxes. The effects they also extend to and reach further than just within those who are confined, they also affect those who treat and heal the prisoners, those who educate and legislate about them, and those who observe (often passively and complacently) the prisoners (Brown, 2013). “In a community characterized through representations of deficit and overrepresentation of criminal and mental health incarceration, reliance on actuarial models of risk assessment reproduces judgments of greater risk for individuals without necessarily taking account of their specific complexities” (Coombes & Te Hiwi, 2007).

What values and insights can psychology bring to justice and pro-social change in institutions, communities and the people who are affected?

Psychology as professional practice - both for researchers and practitioners - is embedded in the historical context of imperialism and ongoing practices of colonization (Coombes & Te Hiwi, 2007) the intersectional role psychology plays within the corrections is crucial, impactful and valuable. Interdisciplinary relationships between law, psychology and psychiatry with a co-operation partnership between not only these disciplines but also the private structures and the communities would create a better outcome for all involved (Freiberg, 2011) because in the past well and present psychology has historically marginalized Māori, and over-represented Māori as objects of scientific inquiry that has damaged Māori wellbeing, we now have an opportunity it present our findings and advocate and support to break bias. Seeing where we have been discriminating and contributing to these old structures and using our location in psychology as an opportunity to assert our power of knowledge to make social change.


It is obvious that there are flaws in risk management and risk assessment especially in racial profiling the algorithm system processes are bias and discriminate those who have been exposed to unfavorable conditions in the past and have committed criminal offending. Risk assessment categorizes risk in an attempt to predict the future but in doing so discriminates against prisoners and those who meet the pre-condition factors, which is usually Māori, creating systematic racism. I think we have opportunity here as we address these issues to look a=how we are managing risk, and to whom the responsibility lies with and how we can interconnect disciplines but also whanau and communities so they we can have a fair and just management process that respects those who are being tested.


Arrigo, B. A. (2013). Managing risk and marginalizing identities on the Society-of-Captives thesis and the harm of social dis-ease. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 57(6), 672-693.

Boyle, O., & Stanley, E. (2017). Private prisons and the management of scandal. Crime Media Culture, 15(1). 67-68

Brown, M. (2013). Captivity, citizenship, and the ethics of otherwise in the Society-of-Captives thesis. A commentary on Arrigo. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative C riminology, 57(6), 694-702.

Coombes, L. M., & Te Hiwi, E. J. (2007). Social justice, community change. In I. M. Evans, J. J. Rucklidge, & M. O'Driscol (Eds.), Professional practice of psychology in Aotearoa New Zealand (pp. 379- 396). New Zealand Psychological Society Inc.

Fredrickson, 0. (2022) Risk assessment algorithms in the New Zealand criminal justice system. Lexis Nexis. Retrieved from

Freiberg, A. (2011). Psychiatry, psychology and non-adversarial justice: From integration to transformation: Myers Lecture, 2010. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 18(2), 297- 3 14.

Langan, J. (2010). Challenging assumptions about risk factors and the role of screening for violence risk in the field of mental health. Health, Risk & Society, 12(2), 85-100.

Large, M. M., & Nielssen, O. B. (2011). Probability and loss: Two sides of the risk assessment coin. The Psychiatrist, 35(11), 413-418.

McIntosh, T & Workman, K. (2017). Māori and Prison. The Palgrave Handbook of Australian and New Zealand Criminology, Crime and Justice. DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-55747-2_48

Silver, E., & Miller, L. (2002). A cautionary note on the use of Actuarial risk assessment tools for social control. Crime & Delinquency, 48(1) 138-161

Smith, R. (2016). Investing in better mental health for prisoners. Department of Corrections. COTA Finding Report - A Question of Restraint August 2016.

Szmukler, G., & Rose, N. (2013). Risk assessment in mental health care: Values and costs. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 31(1), 125-140.

1 view0 comments
bottom of page