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Benefits of Forensic Evaluations


Forensic evaluations have become a valuable resource for the criminal court system by addressing important psycholegal questions. For instance, assessing risk for violence can help courts make appropriate decisions on issues such as sentencing, granting privileges, and community reintegration. If an individual is assessed to be a high risk for future violence, a judge has grounds to order a more restrictive setting compared to someone who is a lower risk for recidivism. By tailoring court decisions based on accurate risk assessment, the community is safer while the defendant's rights are also protected.

Current best practices recommend utilizing multiple sources of information in making risk assessments. First, it is important to review available records which may include clinical records, police reports, and arrest records. A defendant’s history should anchor risk assessments because a good predictor of future behavior is past behavior. John Monahan, who is a prominent figure in the field of risk assessment, stated that “if there is one finding that overshadows all others in the area of prediction, it is that the probability of future crime increases with each prior criminal act.”

Conducting a thorough clinical interview is the next step in good risk assessment. A clinical interview provides information on an individual’s current mental status, and whether the person meets clinical criteria for a mental illness. The clinical interview should emphasize risk assessment, corroborating risk factors identified from past records, as well as identifying other possible risk factors.

Finally, there are an increasing number of empirically-based instruments available for predicting risk for violence (e.g., Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, Violence Risk Appraisal Guide). Risk factors on these instruments are categorized as static or dynamic risk factors. Static risk factors are historical factors that are temporally stable in nature. Examples of static risk factors include having a history of previous violence, young age at first violent incident, employment problems, substance use problems, and prior supervision failure. Dynamic risk factors tend to change and can moderate the effects of static risk factors, thus adjusting the risk level of the individual. Examples of dynamic risk factors include having a lack of insight, negative attitudes, impulsivity, and being unresponsive to treatment.

Given today’s technology in the field of forensic psychology, one can be confident in the expert opinion of a qualified forensic scientist. Defense attorneys may feel that securing such opinions better protect their clients so that unwarranted concerns do not intrude into court decisions. Prosecutors, on the other hand, may find that a credible expert opinion on violence prediction can strengthen their efforts to protect society.

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