WSU research helps reduce criminal re-offense rates

By Judith Van Dongen, WSU Spokane

Hamilton-Z-2014-80SPOKANE, Wash. – Increasing public safety and controlling costs are among the benefits of three related Washington State University projects to predict criminal re-offense and determine the effectiveness of treatment programs.

With funding from the state Department of Corrections and the state Institute for Public Policy, Zachary Hamilton, assistant professor of criminal justice at WSU Spokane, is leading the projects. They are intended to enhance the state’s system for classifying and treating felony offenders and others who potentially pose a threat to society.

Better risk assessment

The first project will update the state’s method for assessing inmates’ risk of reoffending after their release from prison. Implementation is expected to start in January 2015.

Under the current method, criminal history and demographics, like age and gender, have been used to assign each inmate a risk score. That score guides decisions like the security level of the prison where the offender is placed and the level of supervision needed upon release.

Using Department of Corrections data that cover almost 50,000 felony convictions 2008-10, Hamilton is developing and validating a new, more comprehensive version of assessment. It will consist of separate tools for male and female offenders for different types of crimes – such as violent crime, drug crime or property crime. Offenders’ needs will be considered, based on a needs assessment interview.

“The interviewer will ask questions related to education, vocation, family history, criminal attitudes, aggression and so on, getting at all the different domains that represent or have been linked to future criminal behavior,” said Hamilton.

The Department of Corrections has been collecting this type of information, but it wasn’t previously considered as part of the risk assessment, he said. Needs data will be reassessed every six months, making it possible to recalculate an inmate’s risk score to account for changes over time.

Hamilton said preliminary results show the new risk assessment instrument is not only more accurate, but will also provide cost savings since it will better predict where inmates should be placed.

Evaluating programs to keep, cancel

The second project, mandated by the state Legislature, is an inventory of state-sponsored offender programs and assessment of their effectiveness at reducing the rate of re-offense. Implementation of plans to phase out and expand programs should begin by January 2016, Hamilton said.

Examples of programs being evaluated by Hamilton and co-investigator Jacqueline van Wormer include substance abuse treatment, educational programs, vocational training, cognitive-behavioral therapy, parenting courses and visitation programs.

“Our work will be used to eliminate funding for programs that aren’t effective and to expand the scope of programs that are,” said Hamilton. “The idea is that the new risk-needs assessment would feed people into those programs that are going to effectively reduce their risk of recidivism.”

Mental illness assessment

In the third project, Hamilton is developing a method to identify Washingtonians who are at risk of involuntary commitment – a legal process of placing into treatment individuals who are considered a public safety hazard due to severe mental illness.

The new instrument, which will include a needs assessment, will predict the risk of psychiatric rehospitalization and criminal behavior.

New WSU research institute

The projects are part of the research portfolio of the new Washington State Institute for Criminal Justice Research based at WSU. The institute was established to provide research and technical assistance to the Washington criminal justice community.

Hamilton, based at WSU Spokane, is director of the institute’s Division of Corrections and Sentencing. The division also includes WSU criminal justice faculty members Jacqueline van Wormer (Spokane); Faith Lutze, Mary Stohr and Craig Hemmens (Pullman); and Laurie Drapela (Vancouver).



Zachary Hamilton, WSU Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology, 509-358-7935,

Judith Van Dongen, WSU Spokane/WSU News Service, 509-358-7524,