Youth Violence Risk Assessment Instruments Essay

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Identifying youth at risk for committing future acts of violence is important for effectively implementing the services and interventions needed to curtail youth violence. Risk assessment instruments are used to predict future violence and are informed by a number of different components, including youth risk and protective factors, treatment needs, and likelihood of responsivity to treatment. Risk assessments are administered in various formats, including open-ended interview, self-report, and analysis of collateral information. These assessments are conducted by multiple stakeholders and across different contexts, such as clinical, legal, and research settings.

Assessment Components

Research has identified specific risk factors that are associated with an increased likelihood of future violence among youth. In particular, a history of violent behavior or exposure to violent behavior (e.g., abusive relationships, family violence), mental illness (e.g., psychopathic traits, substance abuse), and maladaptive environmental influences (e.g., delinquent peers, neighborhood disorganization) have all been linked to risk for future violence among youth. However, risk factors are typically only one component of risk assessment instruments used to predict youth violence. For example, treatment needs, or risk factors that are amenable to change (e.g., antisocial attitudes), are often assessed to identify interventions and services that may decrease the likelihood of future violence among at-risk youth. Responsivity factors, such as an individual’s motivation to change, are also measured in risk assessment instruments and are thought to index how responsive at-risk youth will be to treatment interventions. Lastly, some risk assessment instruments take into account protective factors, which are characteristics associated with a reduced likelihood for engaging in future violence, such as strong social support and prosocial attitudes.

Assessment Formats

Risk assessment instruments can be administered in a variety of formats, including structured, semi structured and unstructured clinical interviews, self-report and informant-report questionnaires, or a combination of these methodologies. Historically, determinations of risk for violence were based primarily on the opinion of a clinician following an unstructured interview and/or a review of collateral data (e.g., criminal records, school reports). However, the use of unstructured clinical interviews to identify youth at risk for violence has largely been replaced by more standardized risk assessment formats that use scientifically supported criteria (e.g., risk factors, protective factors) to predict future violence. For instance, the Psychopathy Checklist: Youth Version (PCL: YV) is highly correlated with risk for violent behavior and uses a semi structured clinical interview and review of records to rate youth on a checklist of 20 characteristics associated with psychopathic tendencies (e.g., early behavioral problems). Although standardized risk assessment measures are generally preferred over unstructured assessment formats because they are thought to be less susceptible to bias and inconsistency, highly structured violence risk assessments cannot be tailored to the complexities of an individual case and thus may ignore important individual-level factors in predictions of future violence.

Contexts Of Use

Risk assessment instruments are administered by multiple stakeholders, including law enforcement, social workers, psychologists, and attorneys. As such, assessments are administered across multiple contexts. Prominent examples of use occur within clinical (e.g., therapy), legal (e.g., juvenile justice, courts), and research (e.g., university) settings. The purpose and implications of youth risk assessments are often dictated by the settings within which they are administered. For example, the PCL: YV has been used in research settings to better understand the development of psychopathic traits in youth; the PCL: YV has also been administered in legal settings to determine whether a youth should be tried in court as an adult. Additionally, risk assessments like the Youth Level of Service/Case Management Inventory (YLS/CMI) and the Juvenile Assessment Intervention System (JAIS) from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency include measures for gauging youths’ needs and the likelihood that they will respond positively to a particular intervention (i.e., responsivity). Thus, the YLS/CMI and the JAIS are more often administered by frontline service providers (e.g., probation officers and social workers) in order to target intervention and rehabilitation.


Though risk assessments can provide standardized, cost-effective, and efficient means to assess youth violence capacity, they have been critiqued on multiple grounds. Perhaps the strongest critique levied against the use of risk assessment instruments revolves around their imperfect predictive power. That is, risk assessments cannot always accurately measure and predict risk. This inability is due to the complex nature of risk whereby individual, family, neighborhood, and cultural factors must all be considered. Furthermore, risk is a dynamic phenomenon that changes over time and across settings. Most risk assessment instruments, however, provide a snapshot of the youth at a particular moment in time and reduce the many facets of risk and development into a single indicator (e.g., number or category) of risk. Nevertheless, this imperfect indicator of risk can and often does have far-reaching consequences for youth. For example, a risk assessment can determine the type of services youth receive, the criminal charge for an offense, and the harshness of sentencing in court.

Another critique notes that a majority of risk assessment instruments are designed to measure risk for male youth. This critique is significant given that assessments were developed in large part through the consideration of risk factors for males. However, female youth violence may be characteristic of differential risk. For example, a history of violence may be a less powerful predictor of violence for girls when victimization history is taken into account. Therefore, the assessment of risk for violence in female youth may be less valid.


  1. Borum, R. (2000). Assessing violence risk among youth. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 56, 1263–1288.
  2. Forth, A. E., Kosson, D. S., & Hare, R. D. (2003). Hare Psychopathy Checklist: Youth version. Toronto, ON: Multi-Health Systems.
  3. Hoge, R. D. (2002). Standardized instruments for assessing risk and need in youthful offenders. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 29, 380–396.
  4. Hoge, R. D., & Andrews, D. A. (2002). Youth Level of Service/Case Management Inventory (YLS/CMI). North Tonawanda, NY: Multi-Health Systems.

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