May | June 2019

Research Central: Studying Risk Assessment Implementation and Youth Outcomes in the Juvenile Justice System

©Lisa S./Stutterstock.comRisk and needs assessments are important tools for improving public safety because they can determine which youth in the juvenile justice system are at the greatest risk of reoffending and identify needs that can be addressed through intervention and services. Yet, these assessments can be challenging to implement, and implementation shortfalls can have a negative impact on system decisions and youth outcomes.

To better understand the factors that may help or hinder effective implementation, in 2015 OJJDP launched a study led by the University of Cincinnati to examine the Ohio Youth Assessment System (OYAS) in three states—Arizona, Indiana, and Ohio. The OYAS measures risk and needs to inform both court decisions and the services that are allocated to youth. Researchers collected data through a variety of methods, including 217 in-person interviews with juvenile justice personnel at 22 agencies, 1,013 web-based surveys, reviews of case record data for 6,222 youth, and phone interviews of 131 youth following their court involvement.

One of the study’s key objectives was to understand how staff perceived the OYAS and implementation of the assessment more broadly. Respondents were generally satisfied with the assessment tool and agreed that the risk and needs assessment benefited their agency and the youth with whom they work, and that the assessment enhanced fairness in the juvenile justice process. However, staff identified areas in need of improvement, including—

  • Full implementation of the risk and needs assessment. The agencies used the assessment information to inform supervision levels (e.g., diversion, probation, secure commitment) and establish a baseline to measure youth progress. However, agencies did not use the OYAS to match youth needs to services, share information with outside agencies for treatment purposes, or efficiently allocate agency resources.
  • Accuracy and consistency in scoring the assessment. Respondents emphasized a need for more frequent training opportunities and ongoing quality assurance efforts to ensure that staff use the OYAS tools as designed.
  • Stakeholder “buy-in.” Because effective implementation of the assessment depends in part on understanding the tool’s usefulness and value, thoughtful approaches to garner support for the tool’s use with both internal and external stakeholders are essential. Respondents recommended that stakeholders become engaged as early as possible and be given a legitimate voice in adopting, implementing, and improving the assessment process.

To evaluate the impact of the OYAS on youth outcomes—including reduced recidivism and other prosocial behaviors and attitudes—the research team analyzed juvenile justice case records and conducted followup interviews with youth. Researchers found that when youth’s risk levels based on the OYAS were used to match youth to supervision levels, the likelihood of recidivism was reduced. However, participation in treatment interventions (e.g., mental health and substance abuse services) was generally not associated with reduced recidivism. The results of the analysis also suggest that matching youth’s needs to treatment based on the scores for “domain areas” within the OYAS (e.g., peers and social support networks, prosocial skills, substance abuse, mental health, and personality) is not occurring consistently. In followup interviews, youth frequently reported being in school or working, regardless of their initial risk level. They also reported receiving treatment during the court process—especially those who were assessed at moderate or higher risk. However, interviewees at all risk levels reported some later contact with police and courts, and also reported drug or alcohol use during the followup.

A major study objective was to develop recommendations for best practices concerning training, monitoring, and use of risk and needs assessments in juvenile justice. The study’s recommendations include sufficient training and post-training support, robust quality assurance practices to ensure the assessment is scored accurately and the information from the assessment is used to its full potential, gaining support for the assessment among a variety of stakeholders, and sharing information with all individuals who will be impacted by its use. Although geared primarily to juvenile justice agencies, these recommendations are relevant to the criminal justice system as well.


To access the final report, visit the website of the National Criminal Justice Reference Service. A summary of the study’s preliminary findings is available in the OJJDP bulletin Studying Drivers of Risk and Needs Assessment Instrument Implementation in Juvenile Justice.