The women’s assessments are most appropriately used by jurisdictions that have invested in the strategic development of gender-responsive programs, practices, and services. Over the last decade impressive innovations have occurred in these areas, largely through the promotion of state and local task forces and new organizational entities dedicated to women services. Even so, jurisdictions contemplating the use of the new risk assessment technologies may benefit from discussion and planning concerning the issues discussed below. Indeed, states endeavoring to implement these tools are working hard to address the following questions:
• Do we have the programs and services needed to responded to the assessed needs of women offenders?
The assessments will identify need domains that will need to be address by services that may not currently be provided by some agencies, e.g., ongoing fostering of parental and family relations, trauma informed services, intensive vocational training, treatments for PTSD and depression, gender-responsive substance abuse treatment, childcare, and programs addressed to parenting skills, healthy relationships, and self-efficacy. Assessment of risk factors related to these needs is of little value if women cannot be referred to appropriate services.
• Do we have, or can we foster the staff competencies needed to conduct sound interviews as well as the treatment plans that follow from the gender-responsive assessment results?
The transition from static risk assessment models to dynamic risk/needs assessment moves staff from a task of scoring record-based, prior history variables (for the static risk assessments) to engaging offenders in a meaningful dialogue. A good interview, one that obtains accurate information about offender needs, requires staff skills in building trust, listening, adhering to ethical standards, and motivating offenders. This is especially true of the gender-responsive assessments, because they tap even more sensitive issues (trauma, relationships, concerns for children) than the domains assessed by current correctional risk/needs assessments. An additional skill set involves engaging and motivating women to participate in a plan to address the needs that are likely to bring them back into the system. Use of these assessments is best approached through training staff in the following areas: 1) evidence-based practices; 2) gender responsive principles and practices; 3) motivational interviewing and other interview skills; and 4) gender-responsive case management and planning.
• Shall we use the assessment scales to help compute a risk score or shall we only use the women’s scales for purposes of a needs assessment?
Several of the gender responsive scales, those listed in Section I of Figure 1, are highly predictive of new offender outcomes. When used along with gender-neutral risk scales they enhance the predictive validity of most currently used correctional assessments. However, administrators and practitioners may recognize that they do not want to increase custody levels or community risk levels by adversities associated with mental illness, abuse, poverty, and unhealthy relationships….even if these are the very women who incur most of the problems throughout the course of correctional supervision. There are answers to these concerns, but they clearly must be formulated through careful agency planning.
• How shall the supplement be integrated or added to the gender-neutral assessment tool?
This is not a concern for those using the stand alone tool, however, the supplement is designed to be used with an existing risk/needs assessment. The supplemental instrument may either be added to the point total for the gender-neutral instrument or it may simply be used as a separate needs assessment tool. If the supplement contributes to the risk score along with the gender-neutral scales, officials will need to decide which of the gender-responsive scales to add. Most important in this regard is a set of variables, including mental health factors, employment, family support, educational strengths, and housing safety, that have been redesigned by the NIC/UC to have a more gender-responsive focus. In other instances some of the traditional needs have been expanded. For example, mental health is expanded over most assessments to address current symptoms of psychosis and current symptoms of depression. Family scales are unpacked to separately measure parental, relationship, and family of origin. This may create a small set of scales that are redundant to the LSI-R, the COMPAS, or some other instrument. UC is currently in the process of conducting additional studies to further assist with the problem of redundancy. However, in the meantime, the women’s scales may be used as needs assessments, with redundancy explored through two-year pilot studies of the tool. The pilot study can than also serve the function of developing agency specific norms and cut-points.
• Is it politically and legally justifiable to use separate risk/needs assessments for men and women?
There is legal support for using distinct tools for men and women. In working through the issues of parity, however, officials should not be lulled into a false sense of security afforded by the existence of identical assessments for male and female correctional clients. Identical assessments are not at all equal if they are valid for one group and not for the other. Moreover, they are not identical if they adequately identify the most relevant needs for males while ignoring those most relevant to females.
The intent of presenting these issues to those considering adopting gender-responsive assessment tools is not to complicate but rather to ease the process of implementation by encouraging ample discussion and planning. In fact, agencies adopting the tool have successfully or are in the process of successfully working through the concerns listed above.