Most Indiana judges know that our court system uses risk assessments to evaluate juvenile and adult offenders and to enable probation and pretrial release officers to recommend conditions of release. Judges might assume that a lethality assessment is just another term for a risk assessment. However, the two instruments differ, and they are both the subject of much discussion in the field of intimate partner violence.
Risk assessments evaluate an offender’s behavior, and are routinely used by various components of the criminal justice system—especially for pre-trial release/bail decisions and for probation/sentencing options. They are actuarial, evidence-based instruments used to measure the likelihood of future offenses, substance abuse, and related matters.
Lethality assessments, on the other hand, measure the lethality, or dangerousness, of a situation (not an offender). They often use information from a victim, can be confidential, and are primarily used for safety planning in the context of assessing risk of intimate partner homicide. Lethality assessments, also known as danger assessments, are one type of risk assessment, and like them, are evidence-based.
The Danger Assessment, developed by Dr. Jacqueline Campbell of Johns Hopkins University, is an evidence-based lethality assessment specifically designed to predict a woman’s risk of being severely abused or killed by her male intimate partner. Dr. Campbell has also developed other assessments for different relationship types, such as female same-sex relationships.
Through years of extensive research, Dr. Campbell has found that while abused women are generally accurate predictors of the risk of future violence by their intimate partners, they tend to underestimate the severity, and potential for lethality, of that future violence. We know which indicators are correlated with a greater risk of homicide, such as strangulation. Campbell hypothesized that if we alert women to the potential degree of danger, they might take action to reduce their risk of being severely injured or killed.
To those ends, she worked with the Maryland Coalition Against Domestic Violence, law enforcement agencies, and other first responders to develop the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP). It uses the Lethality Screen—a shorter version of Campbell’s Danger Assessment. Under the LAP, trained first responders administer the Lethality Screen to the victim of domestic violence.
Depending on her score, the responding officer might call a social service agency (most likely a domestic violence shelter), giving the victim the opportunity to immediately speak with an advocate. First responders also have the option of “overriding” the score (based on their observations or experience) and offering the opportunity to speak with the advocate regardless of the score on the Lethality Screen.
Campbell and her research partners validated the LAP in a multi-year, quasi-experimental National Institute of Justice-funded study in the state of Oklahoma. Researchers found that the women who participated in the LAP were significantly more likely to have engaged in protective actions (such as seeking help from domestic violence service providers or removing or hiding their partners’ weapons) after police contact.
They also found a significant reduction in the severity and frequency of subsequent abuse among LAP participants. The results were amplified for the women who not only participated in the LAP by answering questions from the first responders, but who also decided to speak with the hotline advocate.
In 2009, the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ICADV) partnered with six law enforcement agencies in Allen, Grant, and Wabash counties to pioneer the LAP. Over the past seven years, additional jurisdictions and agencies have joined Indiana’s LAP. Within the first six months of 2016, responders conducted 799 screens in cases that included both male and female victims and perpetrators.
Six hundred cases either scored in the “high danger” category or were designated so by officers, and the remainder scored in the “low danger” group. Victim participation in the LAP is voluntary.
In addition to law enforcement agencies, the ICADV is adding hospitals and EMTs to the LAP. According to Caryn Burton, Training Coordinator at ICADV, “Allen County has experienced a roughly 50 percent decline in domestic violence homicide over this period. The reduction in domestic violence is distinct in communities after the implementation of the Lethality Assessment Program.
In the seven years since the program’s implementation, only one victim who was assessed has been killed. That case was an extreme outlier because the victim was actively engaged in services and was taking steps toward safety. It was an example of separation violence at its most lethal.”
The LAP results from Indiana and Oklahoma enhance our confidence in the accuracy of some domestic violence lethality assessments, and inevitably lead to the question of whether any courts are using lethality assessments in domestic violence cases—and if so, how.
Part Two of this series will discuss how some courts around the country use lethality assessment in both civil protection order and criminal domestic violence cases.
The 2014 final report of the National Institute of Justice-funded Oklahoma LAP study is available at: https://ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/247456.pdf.