Canada's sex offender legislation: 'tough on crime', short on smarts!

Risk Assessment


Progress has been made in the science of risk assessment, which allows us to determine the likelihood that a sex offender will commit a new sex crime in the future. Using risk factors that have been correlated with recidivism, qualified practitioners can use scientific risk assessment tools to screen offenders into risk categories.. Risk assessment allows us to identify the those sex offenders with the highest risk level, and apply the most intensive interventions to those who need the greatest level of supervision, treatment, and restriction.

Currently risk assessment is performed by the Correctional Service of Canada and the National Parole Board to reduce the likelihood than an offender commits a violent or serious crime after being released from a correctional facility. On the basis of risk assessments, high-risk offenders can be kept in custody for longer periods of time and, once released, may be supervised more closely than low-risk offenders. And individuals who have committed a series of violent offences may be declared dangerous offenders and incarcerated indefinitely. Risk assessment plays a crucial role in dangerous offender proceedings. While the Canadian criminal justice system relies heavily on predictions of risk, these predictions are inherently error prone. There are no ‘laws' of behaviour that can be applied to a set of circumstances to determine the behavioral outcome that will follow. Criminal behaviour, in particular, is motivated and supported by an unquantifiable number of factors; therefore, to assess an individual as ‘high risk' is not to say that he or she will definitely recidivate. Despite its shortcomings, risk assessment can differentiate offenders who pose a significant risk for re-offending in the future from those who are likely to refrain from committing future offences.

                Assessment procedures are available that allow practitioners to distinguish between sexual offenders with a low risk of reoffending and those with a high risk of reoffending. Consequently, community safety can be efficiently served when responses to sexual offenders vary according to their risk level.

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Not all sex offenders should be treated the same. Within the correctional literature it is well known that the most effective use of correctional resources targets truly high-risk offenders and applies lower levels of resources to lower risk offenders (Andrews & Bonta, 2003). The greater the assessed risk, the higher the levels of intervention and supervision; the lower the assessed risk, the lower the levels of intervention and supervision. Research has even suggested that offenders may actually be made worse by the imposition of higher levels of treatment and supervision than is warranted given their risk level (Andrews & Bonta, 2003). Consequently, blanket policies that treat all sexual offenders as “high risk” waste resources by over-supervising lower risk offenders and risk diverting resources from the truly high-risk offenders who could benefit from increased supervision and human service.

Rather than considering all sexual offenders as continuous, lifelong threats, society will be better served when legislation and policies consider the cost/benefit break point after which resources spent tracking and supervising low-risk sexual offenders are better re-directed toward the management of high-risk sexual offenders, crime prevention, and victim services (Hanson. Sex Offender Recidivism: A Simple Question, 2004).

Legislation that truly seeks to strike a balance between community safety and the right of the offender can do this by using risk assessment. Until such time as those with the highest risk are deemed to be low risk, they should be denied a pardon and remain on the sex-offender registry.