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Communication Format Influences Perceptions of Offender Risk

lhbPerceptions of risk vary by the communication format used and laypersons appear more receptive to communication messages that provide an interpretive label than those that provide statistical results. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2014, Vol. 38, No. 5, 418-427

Same Score, Different Message: Perceptions of Offender Risk Depend on Static-99R Risk Communication Format


Jorge G. Varela, Sam Houston State University
Marcus T. Boccaccini, Sam Houston State University
Veronica A. Cuervo, Sam Houston State University
Daniel C. Murrie, University of Virginia
John W. Clark University of Texas at Tyler


The popular Static-99R allows evaluators to convey results in terms of risk category (e.g., low, moderate, high), relative risk (compared with other sexual offenders), or normative sample recidivism rate formats (e.g., 30% reoffended in 5 years). But we do not know whether judges and jurors draw similar conclusions about the same Static-99R score when findings are communicated using different formats. Community members reporting for jury duty (N = 211) read a tutorial on the Static-99R and a description of a sexual offender and his crimes. We varied his Static-99R score (1 or 6) and risk communication format (categorical, relative risk, or recidivism rate). Participants rated the high-scoring offender as higher risk than the low-scoring offender in the categorical communication condition, but not in the relative risk or recidivism rate conditions. Moreover, risk ratings of the high-scoring offender were notably higher in the categorical communication condition than the relative risk and recidivism rate conditions. Participants who read about a low Static-99R score tended to report that Static-99R results were unimportant and difficult to understand, especially when risk was communicated using categorical or relative risk formats. Overall, results suggest that laypersons are more receptive to risk results indicating high risk than low risk and more receptive to risk communication messages that provide an interpretative label (e.g., high risk) than those that provide statistical results.


Static-99R, communication, risk assessment, sexual offender

Summary of the Research

“Research suggests that between 75% and 80% of laypersons believe that sexual offenders will reoffend. In contrast, meta-analytic research has found a sexual recidivism rate of approximately 11.5%. This large discrepancy between public perceptions and the research that forms the basis of risk estimates highlights the importance of examining how risk messages are understood and used in legal decision making…Evaluators who use risk assessment instruments must effectively communicate their findings to those who actually make decisions about offenders, including judges and jurors. Risk assessment results are of little value if experts cannot effectively communicate their findings to legal decision makers. Thus, the primary goal of the current study was to examine whether different risk communication formats for the same Static-99R score lead venirepersons (i.e., community members who presented for jury duty) to reach the same or different conclusions about recidivism risk. A secondary goal was to examine whether venirepersons view some risk communication message formats as more useful or understandable than others” (pp. 418-419).

“The current study extends risk communication research into the domain of sexual offender proceedings, in which risk communication, particularly based on the Static-99R, is ubiquitous. [The authors] compared the influence of three Static-99R risk communication formats—categorical, risk estimate, and relative risk—on venire- persons’ perceptions of sexual offenders (e.g., dangerousness and likelihood of reoffense). Existing research suggests that venirepersons view categorical messages as more useful than those with statistical information and, as a result, we should expect the greatest differences in perceptions of dangerousness and likelihood of reoffending between high- (Static-99R = 6) and low- (Static-99R = 1) scoring offenders when information is presented categorically. Existing research also suggests that venirepersons may devalue risk assessment results when they indicate low risk, suggesting that we should expect our participants to report that Static-99R findings are less useful when they indicate low risk. We also should expect venirepersons to be especially likely to report being confused by relative risk messages, because they combine technical statistical information with a comparison to the undefined ‘typical’ sex offender” (p. 420).

“Participants read a two-page document that included one of six versions of a sex offender risk assessment case…The case descriptions varied across two dimensions—the offender’s Static-99R score (i.e., risk level) and risk communication format. The low-scoring offender was assigned a Static-99R score of 1 and the high-scoring offender was assigned a Static-99R score of 6.

The three risk communication formats were categorical, risk estimate, and relative risk. In the categorical conditions, the offender’s risk was communicated in the following manner: ‘According to the Static-99R developers, Mr. Donaldson’s score of 1 (or 6) places him in the Low (or High) risk category for being charged with another sexual offense.’ In the relative risk conditions, the case description reported the Static-99R score and the offender’s risk was described as ‘three fourths the recidivism rate of the typical sex offender’ for the low-score condition and ‘2.91 times the recidivism rate of the typical sex offender’ for the high-score condition…In the risk estimate conditions, the case description read ‘in the Static-99R research sample, 9.4% (or 31.2%) of men who scored 1 (or 6) on the Static-99R (like Mr. Donaldson) were rearrested for a sexual offense within five years’” (p. 420).

Participants were 211 adult community members called for jury duty in an urban jurisdiction. The average age was 44.12 years (SD = 14.03) and the racial/ethnic breakdown was: 53.1% White, 44.1% Black, and 2.9% other ethnicity. Participants were asked to make several ratings regarding the hypothetical offender, including their perceptions of likelihood of committing a new sexual offense in the next 5 years, level of risk, and importance of the Static-99R results.

Perceptions of the Offender

“Overall, 95% of participants indicated that the offender would commit a new sex offense in the next 5 years. Given this lack of variance, [the authors] did not compare responses across study conditions” (p. 421).

With respect to the ratings of risk, “[o]verall, the findings indicate that participants viewed the high- and low-scoring offenders as having significantly different levels of risk when Static-99R results were communicated using a categorical format, but not when results were communicated using relative risk or recidivism rate formats” (p. 421).

“There was also some evidence that participants who read about the same Static-99R score viewed the offender differently depending on risk communication format. Among participants who read about a Static-99R score of 6, those who read a categorical message assigned higher risk composite ratings than those who read a recidivism rate message and those who read a relative risk message. Among participants who read a Static-99R score of 1, those who read a categorical message assigned the lowest composite ratings, although they were not significantly lower than those from participants who read recidivism rate and relative risk messages” (pp. 421-422).

Perceptions of the Static-99R Results

In terms of perceptions regarding the importance of the Static-99R results, participants rated the Static-99R results as being more important in the high-score condition. With respect to the type of communication used, in the high-score condition, the categorical message was rated as the most important whereas in the low-risk condition, it was rated as the least important.

Translating Research into Practice

“Every day, the justice system makes decisions about sexual offenders after considering risk communication, particularly based on the Static-99R. Yet, so far, no studies have examined how decision makers understand or use this risk communication. [These authors] found that different risk communication formats for the same Static-99R score might lead venirepersons to different conclusions about recidivism risk. When the offender had a high Static-99R score, participants rated him as more dangerous and likely to reoffend when the risk communication included a categorical message than a numerical message (i.e., relative risk or risk estimate). When the offender had a low Static-99R score, risk ratings were generally high but similar across the three risk communication conditions. Indeed, participants viewed the high- and low-scoring offender as similarly likely to reoffend when risk was communicated numerically.

Participants’ responses to questions about the importance and understandability of Static-99R results may help explain the relatively high-risk ratings in the low-score conditions. Participants presented with a low Static-99R score were more likely than those presented with a high score to report that the Static-99R results were difficult to understand, and they also rated the Static-99R results as relatively unimportant. These patterns applied more clearly to participants presented with categorical and relative risk communication messages than those presented with recidivism risk messages. Indeed, participants who were presented with recidivism rate messages responded similarly to each of [the] measures, regardless of whether they read a risk communication message that corresponded with a high or low Static-99R score” (p. 424).

“Confirmation bias may help explain the varied pattern of participants’ responses to risk communication messages. Confirmation bias is the tendency to selectively seek and interpret information in a manner consistent with one’s beliefs and expectations. In [this] study, nearly all participants, across all experimental conditions, reported that the offender would likely reoffend within the next 5 years. It is reasonable to assume that many participants in [this] study assumed that most sexual offenders reoffend, as have participants in other research…One implication of these findings is that experts and attorneys (most likely defense/respondent attorneys) should consider directly addressing jurors’ a priori beliefs about sexual offenders…But confirmation bias cannot completely explain [these] findings, as the risk communication format also seemed to influence perceptions of offender risk. For example, [the] findings suggest that participants perceived only some of the Static-99R high-score messages as actually conveying higher risk than the corresponding low-score messages. Participants clearly assigned higher risk ratings to the high- scoring than low-scoring offender when risk was communicated using categorical messages. In contrast, there was only a small difference in risk ratings between the high- and low-score (risk) conditions when participants were presented a relative risk message and almost no difference when participants were presented a recidivism rate message.

The finding that community members were most responsive to risk communication formats that provide interpretive guidance (i.e., categorical labels) is consistent with clinicians’ preferences for communicating risk using nonnumerical messages. But one danger in using categorical labels is that clinicians become less descriptive and more prescriptive, implicitly recommending a course of action to the court rather than simply providing factual data. Thus, even using categorical messages requires conscientious clinicians to communicate with caution and clarity” (p. 424).

“[These] findings also suggest that venirepersons either neglect risk ratios or do not understand them, especially when the risk ratio suggests low risk. Participants presented with a low score and a relative risk message should have reported that the offender was less likely than other offenders to reoffend. Yet, almost 80% of participants in the low-score/relative risk condition reported that the offender was more likely than other offenders to reoffend, despite having just read that his recidivism rate was ‘approximately three fourths’ that of the typical offender.

There are several possible explanations for this finding. The first is that jurors simply view all offenders as at a high risk for reoffending, regardless of risk communication messages. Again, a second possible explanation is that innumeracy may have led to a misunderstanding of the risk message. Regardless of the explanation, the implication for practice is that experts need to spend time explaining the recidivism risk of the typical offender. In other words, relative risk communication information may need to be accompanied by a thorough explanation of its basis and application. Testimony explaining the meaning of risk ratios and how they apply to a specific case may be necessary to ensure that decision makers understand the risk information when formulating risk” (p. 425).

“Overall, the findings of the current study suggest that venirepersons approach decision making with the expectation that sexual offenders are dangerous and quite likely to sexually reoffend. Their expectations appear resistant to influence by risk assessment messages, especially when they are informed an offender’s risk is low. Researchers and clinicians in forensic psychology are understandably focused on developing and properly using instruments, including actuarial instruments. But until the field can communicate to decision makers the results of these measures—in understandable and constructive ways—the practical value of rigorous assessment methods will be greatly constrained “ (p. 425).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“A consistent finding across risk, understandability, and importance measures was that participants who read about recidivism rates responded similarly, regardless of whether they read about the rate for a low or high Static-99R score. One possible explanation for this pattern of findings is that laypersons so consistently and so greatly overestimate recidivism risk that actual estimated rates have little impact on their opinions. Another possible explanation is that the difference in recidivism rates (9.4% vs. 31.2%) was too small to be salient or meaningful, despite having used rates from the Static-99R normative group with the highest recidivism rates (high risk/needs). A final possibility is simply that innumeracy (i.e., lack of understanding and facility with numbers and mathematical concepts) left [the] participants unable to make use of recidivism rate data. Scholars have demonstrated that innumeracy is a significant problem among legal decision makers and has hindered mock jurors’ perceptions of violence risk.

One implication of these findings is that it is unlikely that the difference between high and low Static-99R score recidivism rates from other Static-99R normative groups will be salient to jurors. The Static-99R & Static-2002R Evaluator’s Workbook suggests that rates from the routine sample norms, which are lower than the high-risk/need norms used in the current study, are appropriate in most sex offender evaluations. Using the routine sample norms, the estimated 5-year sexual recidivism rates for scores of 1 and 6 are 3.8% and 14.7%, respectively. Because only 4% of offenders score higher than 6 on the Static-99R, most of the 5-year recidivism rates reported by evaluators will be 14.7% or below” (p. 425)

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