Recommendations for Addressing Racial Bias in Risk and Needs Assessment in the Juvenile Justice System

Research BriefYouth & Young AdultsJan 14 2020

Research indicates that justice interventions and heightened levels of supervision can increase the likelihood of future offending for low-risk populations and reduce the likelihood of offending for high-risk youth. Therefore, identifying who is low-risk—and then limiting the types of justice interventions used for this population—is critical for keeping the public safe while minimizing the level of harm associated with state involvement in a youth’s life. Risk and needs assessments are implemented to assist with the proper identification of a youth’s risk level and to guide decisions on how to best intervene with a youth to prevent recidivism.


A large body of research documents the overrepresentation and differential treatment of people of color in the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Racial and ethnic disparities are often attributed to a variety of systemic inequalities, one of which is the unchecked discretion of justice officials. Risk and needs assessments can help reduce bias in juvenile justice sanctions by providing justice officials with a consistent set of criteria to judge a youth’s risk for offending. On average, these assessments are better predictors of a youth’s likelihood of future offending than a justice official’s professional judgment. Nevertheless, research finds that risk and needs assessments are more likely to misclassify youth of color as high-risk than their white counterparts.

Because risk and needs assessments may disproportionately impact youth of color, there is a need to improve their accuracy and underlying properties. This brief aims to enhance the fairness of the juvenile justice system by supporting practitioners’ and policymakers’ ability to make informed decisions regarding the use of risk and needs assessments. It draws on recent research to answer frequently asked questions about 1) what risk and needs assessments measure and how they are developed and used, 2) how racial bias and inequity may affect the accuracy and fairness of these assessments, and 3) what steps can be taken to address their shortcomings, with a focus on supporting racial and ethnic equity in their use.