A new approach to pre-trial and post-adjudication risk assessment. The Massachusetts Probation Service (MPS) is in the process of implementing a series of strong, data-validated risk assessment tools for adults and juveniles. The new tools aim to make the risk assessment process consistent and evidence-based, while building a more equitable criminal justice system. These tools also support efforts to reduce the possibility of implicit bias in decision making. 

“Implementing these new risk assessment tools requires a significant investment in training, upgrades to our information management systems, and a cultural shift in order to adhere to the principles of evidence-based community supervision, which, when done properly, results in solid decision-making that’s based on data, not anecdote or instinct,” explains Probation Commissioner Edward Dolan.

Why RAI? A more efficient way to assess risk. These new screening tools, also known as Risk Assessment Instruments (RAIs), provide decision makers ways to determine a person’s likelihood of engaging in future behaviors causing criminal justice involvement.

RAIs focus on the future, or "dynamic" risk or likelihood of one or more negative behaviors. Different RAIs identify different, specific risks. Additional RAIs focus on different points of intercept in the justice system: for early diversion or detention, for assessing risk at case disposition, and for use in community re-entry after secure treatment.

The RAI implemented by MPS is the Ohio Risk Assessment System (ORAS).  Other RAI’s utilized by criminal justice agencies include the Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (ComPas, used by the Massachusetts Department of Correction); Texas Christian University Drug Screen (T-CUDS); Risk And Needs Triage (RANT); and the Level of Service/Case Management Inventory (used by Massachusetts Parole Board).

If applied correctly, ORAS can predict the likelihood that an individual may commit a new crime, as well as identify any factors that might drive a person's criminal behavior. 

Juveniles: J-PAST. In addition to ORAS and OYAS (ORAS for youth), the Juvenile Probation Arraignment/Appearance Screening Tool (J-PAST) is being piloted by six juvenile probation departments. J-PAST helps juvenile probation officers and the courts make bail-related decisions at hearings for youth scheduled for arraignment on new charges. J-PAST does not assess risk of a youth’s other types of behavior or "intercepts," points of contact in the criminal justice system.

A juvenile probation officer often only has a few quick moments to complete the J-PAST, typically at the time of intake and before the hearing. Probation then shares the J-PAST score with the prosecutor and defense counsel before the bail decision, and with the judge during the arraignment. Items used to complete a J-PAST include the intake interview with a parent or guardian, which typically covers history of mental health issues, as well as school, police, and court (CARI [1]) records.

ORAS: Evidence-Based Risk Assessment. ORAS is a universal assessment system that can be used at various points in the criminal justice system: at pretrial, before or during community supervision, at prison intake, and in preparation for reentry just prior to release from prison. The Massachusetts Probation Service currently uses the ORAS tool after someone has been sentenced to risk-need supervision.

When used as part of the probation intake process, ORAS [2] enables probation officers to:

  • Obtain reliable, accurate assessments with consistent meaning
  • Reduce duplication and enhance communication and information-sharing within the Probation Department and across partner agencies
  • Gather information regarding potential barriers to treatment
  • Provide more thorough and useful information to guide informed decision making about probation clients
  • Allow for professional discretion and overrides when warranted
  • Strengthen reliance on proven instruments that can distinguish risk levels
  • Allocate supervision and treatment resources
  • Generate case plans that identify and prioritize individual probationer’s needs and specific treatments
  • Predict likelihood of re-arrest and recidivism at different points in the criminal justice system

Overall, the goal of ORAS is to help probation officers gather data and target their clients’ needs, which assists with caseload management and the development of service and supervision plans.

Motivational interviews. ORAS requires probation officers to use a motivational interviewing technique that involves asking probationers a detailed series of questions. Probation officers then use the information to identify and create appropriate solutions that encourage positive, long-term behavioral change.

"Motivational interviewing is a critical skill we're deploying to implement supervision consistent with the principles of risk-need-responsivity," says Commissioner Dolan. “This technique requires a non-judgmental approach that encourages self-realization and talk of change on the part of the probationer. Rather than telling someone what they should do, we encourage them to think seriously about what they can do to become productive, healthy members of the community.”

Next steps include the validation of how the Massachusetts Probation Service uses the ORAS tool. MPS has issued a Request for Proposals, and is close to selecting a vendor with expertise in evaluating risk assessment tools. Probation will then analyze the evaluation data and, if necessary, work with the vendor to redesign the risk assessment tool and the cut-off scores for levels of supervision. The department will also examine individual factors and relevant scores of the assessments to help assist future decision making.

MPS will also issue a second Request for Proposals to help with the design of a pre-trial risk assessment tool for adult criminal courts. The proposed, statistically valid pre-trial risk assessment tool will help guide judicial decision makers regarding a defendant’s risk for failure to appear in court. The vendor will develop the pre-trial risk assessment instrument by collecting and analyzing local court and statewide data to determine which factors can help predict probationers’ pretrial success.

Objective screening tools…

  • Enable risk assessors not to be influenced by personal feelings, opinions and biases
  • Increase the probability that all defendants are treated fairly
  • Decrease the probability that a defendant’s detention is impacted by who screened them
  • Decrease unnecessary and harmful detention for lower risk defendants
  • Enhance public safety


[1] Court Activity Record Information (CARI). CARI includes Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI), juvenile records, and restraining order information. Unlike a CORI, a CARI is not available to the general public and can only be seen by the opposing party under strict guidelines. Source: http://blog.mass.gov/masslawlib/misc/cori-cari-what-is-the-difference/as of 12/7/15.

[2] Source: http://www.drc.ohio.gov/web/oras.htm as of 12/10/15.