Misplaced perceptions of risk: Young people and punishing decisions

Katherine Williams, Kevin Haines, Diana Johns

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Risk assessment of young people who come into contact with the youth justice system is carried out using instruments based on a Risk, Need and Responsivity (RNR) model. In the UK, for example, youth offending teams use a tool called Asset (and more recently AssetPlus). A young person’s risk of reoffending is assessed by weighing up the factors in their life which are conducive to and protective against offending behaviour. This process is used to determine the correct ‘dose’ of intervention most likely to reduce the likelihood of further offending. Risk assessment, however, also takes place along a continuum, across a range of sites where young people come into contact with justice processes. This includes encounters with police, who make discretionary decisions whether or not to charge or pursue diversionary measures, and decisions made in court. This raises important questions, such as: on what basis are these decisions made? To what extent do these decisions involve the assessment of ‘risk’? And how is ‘risk’ assessed in these settings? In this paper we explore the ways young people’s ‘risk’ is constructed, and examine the implications of those constructions in terms of punishment decisions and outcomes. Building on the work of scholars in this field (e.g. Hannah-Moffatt, O’Malley, Haines & Case!) we will argue that the construction of young people’s risk involves a cumulative process of risk assessment that takes place in informal and often intuitive ways, yet which has tangible outcomes for young people that shape and determine ensuing outcomes. Young people are construed as ‘risky’ or ‘at risk’ (i.e. vulnerable) (Rose 2000; Armstrong 2004, 2006). Yet risk and vulnerability, despite their binary construction, very often share the same basis. Their potential for conflation suggests the need to examine more closely exactly what is being assessed, on what basis and by whom. Drawing on research on young people’s prolific offending in Wales we reflect on examples of disparity in decision making about young people’s ‘risk’ based on ill-founded (mis)perceptions of vulnerability, which have resulted in unfair and unequal outcomes for young people.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPunishment Decisions
Subtitle of host publicationLocations of Disparity
EditorsJeffry Ulmer, Mindy Engen
PublisherTaylor & Francis
ISBN (Print)9781138221475
Publication statusPublished - 30 Oct 2017


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