Updated: Oct 29
AN OVERVIEW OF CURRENT LIMITATIONS AND KEY FUTURE STEPS
Following recent developments in Europe, namely the return of thousands of European Foreign Terrorist Fighters and the subsequent rise of repressive governmental responses, the number of individuals arrested, investigated, prosecuted, charged, and imprisoned for violent extremism and terrorism-related offences has steadily increased (van der Heide, van der Zwan & van Leyenhorst, 2019). As a result, the interest in and demand for screening and assessing the risk of radicalisation and (re-)offending has also incremented both in the academia and policy realms (ibid). As follows, risk assessment instruments have widely become support tools within the criminal justice system that frame data collection to inform decision-making, help point out potential risks, and manage offenders (Cornwall & Molenkamp, 2018).
Despite the widespread consensus that risk assessment tools by and large cannot predict future behaviours, research has shown that these can come in handy when identifying specific characteristics be it individual or contextual (e.g., history of past behaviour, isolation, radical milieu), which, in a given context, are able to signal the likelihood of an individual engaging in antisocial conducts (RTI International, 2018) that go beyond an attempt to profile vulnerable individuals.
As a point in fact, accompanying the greater trend of reaching scientificity and efficiency in this field, risk assessment has also undergone a development process to become as scientifically grounded as possible. The structured professional judgement approach (SPJ) approach has been trending in the field of violence risk assessment for the past decades, being recognised as a good practice to follow, in order to effectively assess and manage the violence risk posed by vulnerable individuals (Bloom, Webster, Hucker & De Freitas, 2005). By providing structured guidelines, evaluators are guided in exercising discretion during violence risk assessment, being given a structured, yet flexible, process to follow. In this sense, they are able to look at risk as more than a linear function of the total number and score of risk factors. Moreover, the SPJ framework is inherently preventive, as it guides assessment and intervention, thus helping to determine the risks of resorting to violence in assisting intervention efforts (Pressman, 2009). With this comprehensive background, risk assessment tools can be used to inform initial sentencing, custodial management, parole decisions, post-release monitoring, and rehabilitation (Douglas, Pugh, Singh, Savulescu & Fazel, 2017), therefore providing clues on how risk can be managed and mitigated (UNODC, 2016).
When focusing on the P/CVE field, the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) sustains that risk assessment tools can and should be used to determine organisational arrangements, guiding rehabilitative exit efforts, as well as the direction for treatment when necessary (Cornwall & Molenkamp, 2018). However, the complexity and singularity of radicalisation processes have led to some concerns. Firstly, it is understood that generic tools to assess the risk of violence might not be suitable to assess the risk of radicalisation and violent extremism, thus showcasing how extremist individuals display different motivations, actions, and rehabilitation needs (Knudsen, 2018; RTI International, 2018). Secondly, practical concerns have been voiced by civil society institutions regarding the use of radicalisation risk assessment tools in the pre-criminal sphere and as sentencing guides. In both cases, it has been noted that these instruments have the potential to fuel discriminatory tendencies if used in a harmful way to aggravate structural inequalities and grievances (Bucci, 2022).
Bearing this in mind and considering the non-abundance of theoretical and empirical development of radicalisation risk assessment and its instruments, an analysis of their uses and limitations is required to establish a route for a non-biased, non-harmful, and effective application, thus complying with human and civil rights and fulfilling crime prevention and risk mitigation.
Limitations and concerns of radicaliation risk assessment tools
As has been observed, certain scientific and rights limitations and concerns arising from the use of radicalisation risk assessment tools can be pinpointed. For example, risk assessment tools tend to use a cumulative risk model, which does not match the complexity associated with radicalisation and violent extremism (Borum, 2015; RTI International, 2018). Additionally, considering the scarcity of radicalisation cases to build upon as well as their complexity, there is no single profile or path to ground radicalisation risk assessment tools on. As a matter of fact, research has demonstrated how the limited number of violent extremism cases will not suffice to create a specific or sensitive extremist profile. Therefore, there will be a large majority of individuals who might fit the generic profile, yet never engage in violence and vice-versa (Borum, 2015; RTI International 2018), hence increasing the likelihood of false positive and false negative results.
Moreover, considering the reduced number of cases and practical difficulties to access these, radicalisation risk assessment tools lack empirical validation (RTI International 2018). Additionally, they sometimes convey inconsistent results given that, in practice, the effective implementation of risk assessment tools depends on the professionals applying them, namely on the degree of understanding, cooperation and coordination across the various stakeholders working with the tools, as well as on the tool itself (Cornwall & Molenkamp, 2018; RTI International, 2018). In addition to such limitations, several legal and cultural concerns must be mentioned since a balance between the importance of public safety and the rights of the assessed individual must be achieved (RTI International, 2018). For such a purpose an in-depth understanding of the radicalisation process is required, in order to prevent individuals from engaging in violence, whilst safeguarding and assuring their freedoms and rights (Silber & Bhatt, 2007, p. 12). Therefore, the scope of risk assessment must be evident to assessors, especially since holding radical and extremist viewpoints is not illegal in itself.
Lastly, and relatedly, the use of risk assessment tools in communitarian settings is controversial considering the implicit risk of further alienating vulnerable and already marginalised communities and individuals, especially in the pre-criminal sphere. As follows, its implementation must be carefully considered and adequately carried out, preferably by highly trained professionals (Cornwall & Molenkamp, 2018).
How to counter limitations: recommendations and best practices
Considering the identified limitations and concerns and in view of the serious and manifold threat posed by the radicalisation process, some recommendations can be put forward to efficiently and effectively carry out its risk assessment.
When assessing risks in the P/CVE field, professionals must comply with a human and civil rights framework by balancing these with the needs for public safety (Cornwall & Molenkamp, 2018; Ward & Birdgen, 2007). Such a practice adds a layer of needed qualification to guarantee effectiveness and procedural fairness during risk assessment procedures and their outcomes (Borum, 2015). This is especially true when working within the criminal justice system, since each assessment directly impacts the assessed individual, either in prison or in communitarian daily life. Therefore, considering the seriousness of violent extremism and terrorism-related crimes, the consequential societal and political demands for justice effectiveness, and the current scientific advances, professionals conducting radicalisation risk assessment procedures must be continuously trained and qualified.
Accordingly, to carry out radicalisation risk assessments, professionals should, in general:
Be experienced in risk assessment – empirical research has demonstrated how years of experience can impact the effectiveness of the assessment. More experienced professionals reach more similar conclusions, conducting their assessments better, since these are better at identifying critical factors, and requesting additional information and clarifications, thus understanding the assessment results comprehensively (Cornwall & Molenkamp, 2018);
Have informed knowledge and expertise in the P/CVE field;
Have experience with the target population;
Mobilise soft skills and adopt a non-judgemental and transparent stance, to build trust and confidence (Cornwall & Molenkamp, 2018).
The importance of training
It becomes clear that properly conducting radicalisation risk assessment is a complex endeavour which requires well-trained, updated and suitable professionals to do so. For that reason, professional training is required.
In this sense, and as pointed out by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the European Commission, training must go beyond an initial or induction training. Indeed, first-line practitioners require P/CVE training in order to be able to understand, identify, prevent, and intervene on the radicalisation and violent extremism phenomena, but these should also be trained on the use of off-the-shelf tools. For such a process, an ongoing, continuous training is required as these professionals must be updated on risk assessment tools’ administration, being given skills to do so and to decide how, when and with whom to use them (RTI International, 2018).
Thus, professionals must have a thorough understanding of the radicalisation process, its complexities and singularities, that would allow them to better select the risk assessment tool that ought to be used. Moreover, with adequate, comprehensive, and continuous training, the need to comply with a human rights framework – especially when guiding sentencing and rehabilitative exit efforts, as well as the need for holistic and comprehensive training – is reinforced (ibid).
Additionally, bearing in mind that conducting radicalisation risk assessment is not an easy task as it can strain professionals with pressure and insecurity, support structures must be put in place, alongside adequate and ongoing training, thus striving for professionals to be more confident in their decisions and used processes. Again, here training is paramount as it helps to prepare professionals for the challenges inherent in P/CVE (UNODC, 2016).
Lastly, considering the increasing need to guarantee a prison-exit continuum, multi-agency cooperation should also be encompassed in training. The effective implementation of risk assessment tools hinges on the degree of understanding, cooperation and coordination across the various stakeholders working with the assessed individuals, which includes those professionals who directly provide input for the assessments, as well as those who carry out the assessment, and those who use its outcomes to develop a tailor-made intervention (Cornwall & Molenkamp, 2018). Such a comprehensive and common approach is the key to better exit outcomes as it improves the rehabilitation and disengagement processes. However, such a practice requires a common framework for different first-line practitioners to work with, hence assuring optimal information transfer and the best possible rehabilitative efforts, respecting the individual’s agency and needs.
This holistic, tailored, and efficient approach to radicalisation risk assessment is what the EU-funded EUTEx project endeavours to establish. Through a European-wide partnership, EUTEx acknowledges that radicalised and extremist individuals’ successful disengagement and reintegration require a multi-agency and multi-disciplinary framework, hence the aim of providing a solid risk assessment plan. Additionally, by comprehensively involving stakeholders from prison, probation, and community settings, EUTEx seeks to develop a risk assessment framework that will ensure the prison – exit continuum, thus providing a comprehensive and adjustable approach to radicalisation risk assessment. In this sense, by doing so, the EUTEx project is expected to increase the quality, effectiveness, and professionalism of the management of terrorist and extremist individuals, which will lead to a long-term increase in European security.
Margarida Damas is a Junior Consultant and Researcher at IPS_Innovative Prison Systems under the Radicalisation, Violent Extremism and Organised Crime portfolio. She focuses on the communitarian prevention of radicalisation and social inclusion and integration of socially vulnerable groups.