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Computerized Assessments Could be a Viable Alternative to Traditional Assessment in Forensic Settings

Incarcerated participants reacted positively to computerized assessment formats in this randomized controlled experiment. 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 | 2017, Vol. 41, No. 5, 468-477

Tablet Computers and Forensic and Correctional Psychological Assessment: A Randomized Controlled Study


Christopher M. King Montclair State University
Kirk Heilbrun Drexel University
Na Young Kim Drexel University
Kellie McWilliams Drexel University
Sarah Phillips Drexel University
Jessie Barbera Drexel University
Ralph Fretz Community Education Centers, West Caldwell, New Jersey


Mobile computing technology presents various possibilities and challenges for psychological assessment. Within forensic and correctional psychology, assessment of justice-involved persons facilitated by such technology has not been empirically examined. Accordingly, this randomized controlled experiment involved administering questionnaires about risk—needs, treatment readiness, and computerized technology opinions to a large (N 212) and diverse sample of individuals under custodial correctional supervision using either a tablet computer or traditional paper-and-pencil materials. Results revealed that participants in the paper-and-pencil condition completed the packet of questionnaires faster but omitted items more frequently. Older participants and those with lower levels of education tended to take longer to complete the tablet-administrated measures. The tablet format was rated as more usable irrespective of demographic and personal characteristics, and most participants across the 2 conditions indicated that they would prefer to use computerized technology to complete psychological testing. Administration format did not have a clear effect on attitudes toward correctional rehabilitation services. Noteworthy for researchers is the substantial time saved and absence of practical problems with the tablet condition. Implications for practitioners include the general usability of the devices, their appeal to incarcerated persons, and the potential for tablets to facilitate clinical and administrative tasks with corrections clients. Considering the novel nature of this study, its promising results, and its limitations, future research in this area is warranted.


forensic assessment, correctional psychology, tablet computer, digital technology, data collection

Summary of the Research

“Compared with applied psychology in general, the specialty areas of forensic and correctional psychology may be advancing more slowly in the adoption of digital technologies to facilitate research and clinical work. This is apparent from the dearth of published scholarly literature on the topic of computerized technology applications for forensic or correctional psychology” (p. 468).

“Computer facilitations are available for certain psychological tests frequently used in forensic mental health assessment, as well as for some specialized forensic assessment instruments. However, only two studies could be located that empirically evaluated such technologies in correctional populations…there are simple questions that have not yet been systematically or thoroughly examined concerning computerized technology and forensic and correctional psychology. Do digitized administrations of self-report questionnaires save time? Do they reduce the number of skipped, missed, or otherwise unscorable items? Relevant to participant responsiveness to correctional rehabilitation services (e.g., motivation, engagement), do participants prefer computerized test administrations, and might attitudes toward assessment and treatment services improve following use of such technology? Do personal characteristics influence the answers to such questions? Second, the use of mobile computing technologies, such as tablet computers, has apparently not yet been empirically examined in a forensic mental health or correctional context. This contrasts with other areas of mental health practice, although the research base is underdeveloped throughout applied psychology generally” (p. 469).

“The present study involved recruiting and randomly assigning a large, diverse sample of individuals in a custodial community corrections setting to complete either a tablet computer or paper-and-pencil version of an 86-item packet of self-report questionnaires that covered demographic and index offense information, self-perceived criminogenic risk and needs, attitudes toward correctional treatment, and opinions about computing technologies in correctional rehabilitation services… The diverse composition of the sample also allowed an exploratory examination of relationships among demographic characteristics and dependent variables. Response patterns on the self-perceived criminogenic risk and needs measure, broken out by study condition, were also examined for exploratory purposes” (p. 469). In total, 212 participants from units comprised of “general population male state prisoners, general population female state prisoners, and male state prisoners with mental health treatment needs that could be met in a community correctional setting” were included in this study (p. 470). The measures used included the Risk Need Perception Survey (RNPS), Corrections Victoria Treatment Readiness Questionnaire (CVTRQ) Attitudes and Motivation subscale, and study-specific questions about the testing format and their opinions of computerized assessments for a total of 86 questions.

“Somewhat unexpectedly, participants in the paper-and-pencil condition completed the study materials faster than those in the tablet condition…It was hypothesized that participants completing the questionnaires via tablets would omit significantly fewer items, with the survey software ensuring that the paper-and-pencil condition would be contrasted with a mean of zero. Results were consistent with this hypothesis. Participants filling out the questionnaires with paper and pencil tended to accidentally omit or otherwise provide an uninterpretable marking for one or more items. The ability to ensure that participants do not unintentionally skip any items, and the unequivocal recording of responses, is a clear advantage of computer-facilitated assessment technology. It was also hypothesized that participants in the tablet condition would rate their administration format more favorably in terms of usability (easy to use, understandable, kept one’s attention, and enjoyable). This was supported. Those in the tablet condition rated their format much more favorably than did paper-and-pencil participants. Notably, among tablet participants, usability ratings did not vary based on demographic or personal characteristics, suggesting that tablet-facilitated assessment may be appropriate for offenders of differing ages, levels of education, ethnic backgrounds, sexes, and mental health functioning” (p. 474). “Most participants in both conditions preferred (or would have preferred) to complete the study questionnaires using the tablet devices. The same was true for the preference to use tablets or other computers for future assessment. In addition, most participants, irrespective of condition, recommended increased incorporation of computing technologies into correctional rehabilitation” (p. 475).

Translating Research into Practice

“For practitioners, it is noteworthy that participants took significantly longer to complete the questionnaires using the tablet computers, although this may have been attributable to the fact that participants were not required to use a bubble answer sheet. This seems likely [according to prior research]. However, the tablet software enabled us to ensure that no items would be omitted or unintentionally skipped. Although some older participants needed minor assistance in using the tablets, all tablet participants successfully completed the digital questionnaires. As a group, they gave the digital format higher ratings in terms of usability. Importantly, tablet usability ratings did not differ as a function of demographic characteristics and mental health status, nor did administration format relate to response patterns on the RNPS. Most participants also indicated that they would be willing to use computers more in correctional treatment services—indeed, they would prefer it. This suggests the potential for increasing engagement in correctional rehabilitation through the use of computerized technology. Furthermore, there are numerous tasks that would be facilitated by the portability and power of tablet computers. It is time to consider this seriously” (p. 475).

“We note that there were no problems in using this equipment. Administrators may be concerned about corrections clients harming valuable equipment, or using it inappropriately (e.g., to access the Internet). No equipment was harmed or stolen. It was also straightforward to disable the tablets so that they could not be used for purposes beyond the intended study, and to password protect the devices against having this functionality restored by participants” (p. 475).

“There may be numerous advantages to thoughtfully integrating digital technology into forensic mental health and correctional contexts, including increasing engagement, decreasing the time required for data collection, decreasing transfer errors of physical data to digital databases, and decreasing the use of paper. The potential for using digital technology in forensic and correctional psychology is far greater than has been its application to date. Thoughtful use of such technology has enormous promise for improving the quality of research, assessment, treatment, and documentation in work with justice-involved individuals” (p. 476).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“During study debriefings, a few participants noted that it would have taken them longer to fill out the paper-and-pencil materials if they had been required to use a bubble answer sheet, rather than just circling or making a mark in the response boxes that had been provided for questions. Also, age was related to completion time only for the tablet condition (older participants tended to take longer), and level of education was only clearly related to completion time for the tablet condition (individuals with lower levels of education tended to take longer). These effects may be related to greater familiarity and comfort with tablet computers among younger persons with higher educational achievement” (p. 474).

“For researchers, we note that receiving approval to introduce tablets into the study facility for use with incarcerated individuals required only one additional step: signing a property damage liability release. The survey software allowed us to store results locally for later uploading to cloud storage once offsite. Facility residents seemed interested in participating because it offered the potential opportunity to use a tablet. Attempts to misuse the devices (e.g., trying to enable the Internet) were infrequent (and unsuccessful). Perhaps the most significant finding for researchers is the data entry and checking time we saved—a few minutes for the tablet condition versus more than 25 hr for the paper-and pencil condition. Thus, researchers should consider taking advantage of computerized technologies in their studies, as our experiences were certainly encouraging” (p. 475).

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Amanda Reed

Amanda L. Reed is a doctoral student in John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s clinical psychology program. She is the Lab Coordinator for the Forensic Training Academy. Amanda received her Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wellesley College and a Master’s degree in Forensic Psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her research interests include evaluator bias and training in forensic evaluation.

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