Canada has over 13,000 federal offenders serving sentences of two years or more, and another 8,000 on conditional release. Like other democracies, Canada relies on the parole system to safely transition convicted criminals from imprisonment to life in the community. Yet according to Correctional Services Canada, an estimated 18 percent of parolees either violate the conditions of release or return to a life of crime prior to completing their sentence.
In 2003, Ralph Serin, a psychologist and Director of the Criminal Justice Decision-Making Laboratory at Ottawa’s Carleton University, began to develop a new decision-making framework for the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) that would help clarify the reasoning behind decisions, as well as lower the recidivism rate.
The Risk Assessment Framework (RAF) guides parole-board members and parole officers on how to analyze various risk factors, such as an inmate’s prior criminal and parole history, their ability to control impulsive behaviour, and evidence of change in their attitude and behaviour. The purpose is not simply to add up aggravating or mitigating factors to reach a decision, but to use the information to guide the decision and facilitate the analysis of the case.
The Parole Board has been using the RAF in training for several years and since June 2011, it has been reflected in the Board’s policy. All 86 Board Members and 1,400 federal parole officers have been trained on how to use it.
“It’s too soon since the framework was introduced to measure outcomes,” says Serin, “but we’ve done studies that compare past parole decisions using the traditional approach versus using the RAF. They show a 4-6 percent improvement in decision accuracy using the RAF.”
Serin estimates that even a one percent improvement in 2010-11 would have saved the system $2.82 million in incarceration costs alone. Serin’s work is starting to cross the border. The National Institute of Corrections in the United States is funding research to validate the RAF in Ohio, Connecticut and Kansas. Also, New Zealand and Iowa corrections have also fully implemented a dynamic risk assessment measure developed in Serin’s lab, and Scotland plans to use web-based modules being developed by Serin to train its probation officers as part of a new model for evidence-based practice.
“The fact that this work defines how to make a good decision and is both accountable and transparent – and fiscally beneficial – makes it unique,” says Serin. “It’s absolutely important that paroling agencies be able to explain, both to the community and to offenders, how they make their decisions.”