E-Bulletin: Sentencing and Corrections Policy Updates Newsletter

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The E-Bulletin is an NCSL electronic newsletter for state legislators, legislative staff, and others interested in state sentencing corrections policy. This newsletter provides periodic updates on state sentencing and corrections legislation and budgets, highlights innovative policies and programs, and connects you with reports and news of upcoming NCSL events.

The E-Bulletin is prepared under a partnership project of NCSL's Criminal Justice Program and the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States.  The NCSL project is designed to help states find the best research and information availale when considering sentencing and corrections policy options and reforms

This article appeared in the E-Bulletin, January 2012 issue (Full newsletter in pdf)


Issue in Focus: Risk and Needs Assessment

States requiring assessment tools across the criminal justice system.

State legislatures are increasingly requiring courts, corrections agencies and release authorities to use offender risk and needs assessments. In 2011, at least six states—Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina and New York—adopted such policies.

System-Wide Use

As with 2010 New Hampshire and South Carolina laws, this year Arkansas, Kentucky and Ohio required implementation of assessments as part of broader reform bills. The Arkansas law requires the parole board to conduct a risk and needs assessment of all parole applicants. Further, all probation and parole supervision now must be based on evidence-based practices, which includes use of an assessment to place offenders in treatment and programming that addresses the individual’s criminal risk factors. All drug court programs now also must use risk and needs assessments.

Kentucky now requires risk and needs assessments for offenders at nearly every stage of the criminal justice system. The law requires assessment results in presentence investigation reports for the court’s use in determining an offender’s eligibility for alternatives to incarceration. Courts also have the option to use an assessment to determine if certain offenders convicted of possession of marijuana, synthetic cannabinoids and salvia should be ordered to treatment rather than incarceration. The Department of Corrections must develop a validated risk and needs assessment for use at intake to state prison or community supervision, and the parole board must use a risk and needs assessment to determine parole conditions and supervision intensity.

Ohio’s law instructs the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to select a single risk assessment tool for use by all courts, probation departments, state and privately-run correctional facilities, and the parole board. All employees who will use the tool must be trained and certified. The law also requires training and certification for all employees who will use the tool. The law also instructs the parole board to consider assessment results when setting conditions of release and offender reentry plans must include post-prison programming that addresses the assessed needs of high-risk offenders

Presentence Reports and Probation

Other state action in 2011 required assessments for consideration both at sentencing and for probation supervision. Colorado now requires all presentence reports to include the results of an assessment of the offender’s criminological risks and needs. North Carolina’s Department of Corrections must use an assessment to determine each probationer’s risk of re-offending and criminogenic needs and place the offender in the proper supervision level. The state limited probation officer caseloads to 60 offenders when an officer’s caseload consists of offenders who are assessed at moderate or high risk. The legislature also created post-release supervision and required that supervision be based on risk assessment results.


Louisiana and New York required risk and needs assessments for parole. The Louisiana Legislature directed its Department of Public Safety and Corrections to develop and submit a plan for adopting an assessment tool for the parole board to use in making release decisions. The plan also must include procedures to guide the department, parole board and agents as they determine both supervision strategies, including risk classification, case planning and treatment decisions; and training and performance evaluations to ensure effective implementation of the assessment. The New York law now requires parole board guidelines to include risk and needs principles that measure the offender’s rehabilitation and likelihood of success upon release.

Risk/Needs Assessment 101: Science Reveals New Tools to Manage Offenders,  a new report from the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States, finds that, when risk and needs assessments are developed and used correctly, they can help criminal justice officials accurately classify offenders, target treatment and other services to reduce recidivism, improve public safety and reduce costs. The report answers eight key questions in development and implementation of risk and needs assessments, including what assessments are and how they are used; what criminal risk factors are and how to differentiate between risk levels; the types of assessments available and their effectiveness; and the important considerations and challenges involved in implementation.