Juror Ratings of Risk Appear Dependent Upon Communication Format in Static-99R Reports

Forensic-Training-AcademyProspective jurors draw different conclusions about reported Static-99R scores depending on whether risk is communicated in terms of category, relative risk, or normative samples. 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 

lhb

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

 

Author

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

Abstract

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.

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

Summary of the Research

Risk and recidivism of sexual offenders has become a captivating topic in psychology and law, prompting an increase in research surrounding risk assessment. However, discrepancies between actual sexual recidivism and public perception of risk necessitate research regarding the effectiveness of expert communication of risk to juries. Varela, Boccaccini, Cuervo, Murrie, and Clark examined juror interpretation of varying Static-99R score communication formats to investigate whether these factors impact layperson perception of sexual offender risk.

The Static-99R is a risk assessment tool utilized frequently by forensic evaluators to report on the level of risk of an individual brought to the criminal justice system. This instrument “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).” However, little is know about whether judge and juror interpretation of Static-99R scores is dependent upon communication format.

Based on previous research findings that judges and jurors may be confused by statistical explanations of risk and seem to devalue expert opinions that indicate low risk of violence, the current study “compared the influence of three Static-99R risk communication formats—categorical, risk estimate, and relative risk—on venirepersons’ perceptions of sexual offenders” (p. 420). A final sample of 211 prospective jurors read one of six case descriptions, which “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” (p. 420).

“After reading the case description and Static-99R results, participants were asked to make three ratings related to the hypothetical offender—likelihood of committing a new sexual offense in the next 5 years, dangerousness to community members, and support for the use of the “most strict and expensive supervision strategies.” They rated each of these items on a scale ranging from 1 (not likely at all/not at all dangerous) to 6 (very likely/very dangerous). Based on previous research examining jurors’ perceptions of offender risk (e.g., Boccaccini, Murrie, Clark, & Cornell, 2008), we expected that ratings on these items would be moderately to highly correlated and that we would combine them to form a single risk composite variable. In other words, those who view the offender as likely to reoffend should also view him as dangerous to the community and in need of the most strict supervision strategies” (p. 420).

The authors found that ratings on the three items were, in fact, moderately to strongly correlated. However, “Participants rated the low-scoring offender as lower risk than the high-scoring offender in some but not all of the communication format conditions. When risk communication was in the form of a categorical message, participants assigned lower risk ratings to the low-scoring offender than the high-scoring offender. When the risk communication was in the form of a relative risk message, participants assigned only somewhat lower risk ratings to the low-scoring offender. Finally, when presented a recidivism rate message, participants assigned nearly identical risk ratings to the low- and high-scoring offenders. Overall, these 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).

Taken together, the results indicate that varying risk communication formats of the Static-99R may result in different conclusions drawn by legal decision-makers.

Translating Research into Practice

The finding that prospective jurors rated the high-scoring hypothetical offender as more dangerous and more likely to reoffend when risk was communicated categorically as opposed to numerically should raise awareness to forensic evaluators about effective communication formats. The finding that the prospective jurors in this study rated the low-scoring hypothetical offender as “similarly likely to reoffend” as the high-scoring offender when the risk information was presented numerically has serious implications. The authors suggest that this may be the result of layperson overestimation of risk or layperson misunderstanding and misapplication of numerical data. Regardless, practitioners who perform Static-99R evaluations and testify in court proceedings should consider this research and take caution in the communication format they choose to utilize. It appears that jurors may be more receptive to categorical communication formats as opposed to formats that involve normative groups or statistical explanations.

Additionally, since “findings also suggest that venirepersons either neglect risk ratios or do not understand them, especially when the risk ratio suggests low risk,” clinicians in this field should take care in communicating low-risk findings to ensure optimal juror understanding (p. 425). Though evaluators may not necessarily be able to reverse layperson overestimation of risk, attempts to clarify may assist in legal decision-making. “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

“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 our 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 our study assumed that most sexual offenders reoffend, as have participants in other research. Therefore, a risk communication indicating that a sexual offender was at low risk for reoffending would have been incongruent with participants’ expectations about sexual offenders and easy to dismiss as unpersuasive or difficult to understand. These findings add to the small but growing body of research suggesting that judges and jurors may simply discount or devalue low-risk messages, perhaps because low-risk messages are incongruent with their expectations that those who have offended in the past will offend again” (p. 424).

Join the Discussion

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

Authored By: Marissa Zappala

DarkBlue-Forensic-Training-AcademyZappalaMarissa - PictureMarissa is currently enrolled in the Master of Arts in Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice located in New York City. She completed her undergraduate work at Penn State University, where she obtained a B.A. Psychology and B.A. Criminology. Her aspirations involve the pursuit of a Clinical Forensic PhD program, and an eventual career in Forensic Psychological Evaluation. To contact Marissa, please e-mail marissa.zappala@gmail.com.

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

Authors

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

Abstract

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.

Keywords

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)

Join the Discussion

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