Guest Blog: Community Justice Scotland on How a National Approach to Risk Assessment is Vital
This month, we’re pleased to welcome Community Justice Scotland’s learning, development and innovation lead, Pete Smith, to the RMA blog to explain the importance of training for justice workers in how to keep people safe.
Risk. Could you go an hour in a justice role without saying the word ‘risk’? I bet you couldn’t. In fact, name me a profession these days where you could hide from risk for more than a day. Risk assessments are a part of everyday life and work. Even simple tasks like crossing the road or deciding to hang out the washing require us to do a quick risk assessment before we decide how to proceed. In justice contexts it’s a bit more complex and a lot more important because when we assess risk of further offending we are doing so in the context of harm reduction and public safety. It may be that we need to focus on the harm caused to another person or it may be about preventing the harm caused from someone ending up in that revolving door justice system that is so difficult to get free from. Frequently, it’s both.
We all want Scotland to be a nation of inclusive, empowered, resilient and safe communities and that means fewer offences. But how do we actually reduce the risk of reoffending? And is it enough to identify the risks before we decide how to manage them? In Scotland, the answer is decidedly ‘no’. Identifying risk is the first step but we need to be more analytical that that. We need to know what’s behind the behaviours, attitudes and life experiences that have led a person to commit crimes. To put it another way, we have to know what a person’s unmet needs are if we want to help them to move towards an offence-free life.
The first challenge is to make sure we’re all marching to the beat of the same drummer. That’s why our national approach to risk assessment is so important. The Risk Management Authority created our Framework for Risk Assessment Management and Evaluation (FRAME). FRAME underpins our working practices and makes it clear to all agencies involved in the delivery of justice that our common purpose requires a common language, shared values and perhaps most importantly the right risk assessment tools for the job. These tools have to be evidence-based. They have to be structured. They have to be proportionate, robust and detailed.
My role in the Learning Development and Innovation team at Community Justice Scotland is to train our justice workforce to identify and analyse risk and need using these tools. It can be daunting for a social worker to be introduced to the landscape of risk assessment so we keep our training lively, varied and very learner-centred. The death by PowerPoint era is well and truly over.
At CJS we train Scotland’s justice social workers to use the Level of Service Case Management Inventory (LS/CMI). Feedback shows 99% agreed our LS/CMI training was delivered to a high standard and provided a high quality learning experience.
LS/CMI is a risk and needs assessment that focuses on the key areas of life where a struggle or imbalance has been shown to cause further offending. Before a person is sentenced the LS/CMI process helps to ascertain the likelihood of further offending if we don’t step in and provide challenge, structure and support. Patterns of past behaviour, the nature of known offending and, crucially, the seriousness of the harm caused by a person’s actions are all identified and analysed. A key part of our training is about how we can effectively communicate this information to the Court and whether a community based sentence is feasible.
When a sentence of a Community Payback Order with supervision is given by the Sheriff, the justice social worker begins building a relationship with their client. At the same time they’re also completing a detailed and robust LS/CMI assessment to examine where the problems areas are, why the problems occurred and what can be put in place to reduce the likelihood of further offending. Often the LS/CMI is combined with other risk assessment tools to provide the most complete analysis possible. A person may have needs around their drug or alcohol use; they may be struggling to regulate their emotions or perhaps criminal behaviour is accepted or expected in their peer group. In LS/CMI training, we give guidance on creating structured, proportionate, challenging plans that help meet these needs and reduce offending.
Behind the needs are real people with life stories. Frequently they are stories of trauma and deprivation that are painful to retell and to hear. That requires us to focus on training workers in sensitive questioning techniques, motivational interviewing and active listening skills. As a social worker learns more about their client’s history, motivations and needs they continue to build a detailed understanding of the past to better inform decisions about the future. This could mean planning interventions that unpick a person’s attitudes toward crime to increase accountability, empathy and an understanding of the harm caused by their offending. This sometimes runs alongside health and wellbeing support or a focus on practical things like housing, employment and education.
One of my favourite parts of the training course is when I hear professionals from across Scotland discuss what they’ll do to help someone move toward an offence-free life. What’s great about the national training courses is that people can share best practice and find out more about what’s going on in different local areas. It’s sometimes impossible to get people from opposite ends of the country into a room together but since we also started delivering the course online we can connect people from all corners of Scotland and hear about their practice. Our online training has also received praise from participants. One person told us, “I really enjoyed the training — very useful to my practice, and engaging throughout. Maybe the best virtual training I’ve been on.”
It’s a huge source of pride to be responsible for delivering LS/CMI training. Without it, justice social workers wouldn’t be able to do their job and it’s even better when our trainees tell us they never expected to enjoy risk assessment training so much. But LS/CMI is only one of the risk assessment tools on which we deliver training. Our training curriculum is so varied and it continues to expand as we meet the emerging needs of our learners.
We deliver different types of training across all 32 local authority areas in Scotland in person and online. In 2022/23 we filled 1,500 course places. It’s great to receive such positive feedback about our training courses from participants. One said: “I could not improve it. The course went over and above my expectations.” While another told us: “Course trainers were very knowledgeable and kept the training at a good pace.”
Learning, Development and Innovation Lead at Community Justice Scotland
Pete’s areas of specialism include research methods in criminal justice, debates and controversies in criminal justice and the memorialisation of trauma in literature. Peter retains his involvement in practitioner led research through the Outstanding Teaching and Learning group sponsored by the Society for Education and Training. He is an examiner for the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance in English Language and Literature.
Community Justice Scotland (CJS) works to change the conversation about justice. They play a central role in the continual improvement of Scotland’s justice system. CJS provide advice to Ministers and local government leaders to strengthen how public services, third sector and other partners work together to prevent and reduce further offending.