Understanding the process of psychological risk assessment:
: exploring the experiences of psychologists, indeterminate sentenced prisoners and parole board members

  • Joanne Shingler

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


As the name implies, indeterminate sentenced prisoners in England and Wales do not have a fixed release date. Instead, a panel of the Parole Board decides whether or not the prisoner can safely be released or moved to a lower security prison without presenting a significant risk of harm to the public. In order to make these decisions, the Parole Board panel relies on written and oral evidence from a range of professionals, including psychologists, who have assessed the risk of the prisoner committing further serious offences. As part of the risk assessment process, psychologists interview prisoners in order to inform their recommendations to the Parole Board.

Despite the potential implications of psychological risk assessment, there has been little research focused on how it is experienced by those whom it affects. However, there is suggestion within the extant literature that psychological risk assessment carries substantial weight in Parole Board decision making. Additionally, relationships between prisoners and psychologists seem to be characterised by hostility and mistrust. This research aimed to gain greater understanding of the experiences of psychologists, indeterminate sentenced prisoners and Parole Board members in relation to psychological risk assessment. It also explored relationships between psychologists and prisoners and their experiences of the risk assessment interview. Data were gathered mainly from interviews with the three stakeholder groups and analysed using Grounded Theory methodology.

The results reveal pressures and contextual influences on all three participant groups. The prison environment, the organisation and the high stakes nature of the task differentially affect psychologists, prisoners and Parole Board members. Consequently, taking a more systemic approach to understanding and conducting risk assessment is essential in reducing stress and improving the quality and utility of risk assessment.

The results also suggest competing views of the legitimacy of psychological assessment. Psychologists and Parole Board members perceive it as valuable and justifiably influential in parole decision making. Prisoners perceive it as unfair and opaque, a view which contributes towards resentment and mistrust of psychologists. The risk assessment interview is an opportunity for differing perspectives to interact. Therefore, the interview is best understood in intersubjective terms, with participants’ multiply and reciprocally influenced by their own and each other’s attitudes and behaviour. The results also reveal a shared understanding between prisoners and psychologists about features of risk assessment interviewing that are most likely to promote trust, engagement and consequently legitimacy. These elements can be built on to improve risk assessment practice.

Overall, this study has improved understanding of the experiences of the three participant groups. It has highlighted the importance of understanding context when trying to understand criminal justice practice. It has identified the unique intersubjective experience of risk assessment interviewing, and the inevitability of influence on the participants. Finally, it has revealed areas where psychological risk assessment can improve in order to promote legitimacy and procedural justice.
Date of AwardNov 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorAdrian Needs (Supervisor), Stefanie Sonnenberg (Supervisor), Alan Costall (Supervisor) & Paul Morris (Supervisor)

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