Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Static-99: A bumpy developmental path

By Brian Abbott, PhD and Karen Franklin, PhD* 

The Static-99 is the most widely used instrument for assessing sex offenders’ future risk to the public. Indeed, some state governments and other agencies even mandate its use. But bureaucratic faith may be misplaced. Conventional psychological tests go through a standard process of development, beginning with the generation and refinement of items and proceeding through set stages that include pilot testing and replication, leading finally to peer review and formal publication. The trajectory of the Static-99 has been more haphazard: Since its debut 15 years ago, the tool has been in a near-constant state of flux. Myriad changes in items, instructions, norms and real-world patterns of use have cast a shadow over its scientific validity. Here, we chart the unorthodox developmental course of this tremendously popular tool.  

Static-99 and 99R Developmental Timeline

The first Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) law passes in the United States, in Washington. A wave of similar laws begins to sweep the nation.
The US Supreme Court upholds the Constitutionality of preventive detention of sex offenders. 
R. Karl Hanson, a psychologist working for the Canadian prison system, releases a four-item tool to assess sex offender risk. The Rapid Risk Assessment for Sex Offence Recidivism (RRASOR) uses data from six settings in Canada and one in California.[1]
Psychologist David Thornton and psychiatrist Don Grubin of the UK prison system release a similar instrument, the Structured Anchored Clinical Judgment (SACJ- Min) scale.[2]
Hanson and Thornton combine the RRASOR and SACJ-Min to produce the Static-99, which is accompanied by a three-page list of coding rules.[3] The instrument's original validity data derive from four groups of sex offenders, including three from Canada and one from the UK (and none from the United States). The new instrument is atheoretical, with scores interpreted based on the recidivism patterns among these 1,208 offenders, most of them released from prison in the 1970s.
Hanson and Thornton publish a peer-reviewed article on the new instrument.[4]
New coding rules are released for the Static-99, in an 84-page, unpublished booklet that is not peer reviewed.[5] The complex and sometimes counterintuitive rules may lead to problems with scoring consistency, although research generally shows the instrument can be scored reliably.
The developers release a new instrument, the Static-2002, intended to "address some of the weaknesses of Static-99."[6] The new instrument is designed to be more logical and easier to score; one item from the Static-99 – pertaining to whether the subject had lived with a lover for at least two years – was dropped due to issues with its reliability and validity. Despite its advantages, Static-2002 never caught on, and did not achieve the popularity of the Static-99 in forensic settings. 
Leslie Helmus, a graduate student working with Karl Hanson, reports that contemporary samples of sex offenders have much lower offense rates than did the antiquated, non-US samples upon which the Static-99 was originally developed, both in terms of base rates of offending and rates of recidivism after release from custody.[7]
September 2008
Helmus releases a revised actuarial table for Static-99, to which evaluators may compare the total scores of their subjects to corresponding estimates of risk.[8] Another Static-99 developer, Amy Phenix, releases the first of several "Evaluators’ Handbooks."[9]
October 2008
At an annual convention of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA), Andrew Harris, a Canadian colleague of Hanson's, releases a new version of the Static-99 with  three separate "reference groups" (Complete, CSC and High Risk) to which subjects can be compared. Evaluators are instructed to report a range of risks for recidivism, with the lower bound coming from a set of Canadian prison cases (the so-called CSC, or Correctional Service of Canada group), and the upper bound derived from a so-called "high-risk" group of offenders. The risk of the third, or "Complete," group was hypothesized as falling somewhere between those of the other two groups.[10]
November 2008
At a workshop sponsored by a civil commitment center in Minnesota, Thornton and a government evaluator named Dennis Doren propose yet another new method of selecting among the new reference groups.  In a procedure called "cohort matching,” they suggest comparing an offender with either the CSC or High-Risk reference group based on how well the subject matched a list of external characteristics they had created but never empirically tested or validated.[11]
December 2008
Phenix and California psychologist Dale Arnold put forth yet a new idea for improving the accuracy of the Static-99: After reporting the range of risk based on a combination of the CSC and High-Risk reference groups, evaluators are encouraged to consider a set of external factors, such as whether the offender had dropped out of treatment and the offender's score on Robert Hare's controversial Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). This new method does not seem to catch on.[12] [13]
An official Static-99 website,, debuts.[14]
Winter 2009
The Static-99 developers admit that norms they developed in 2000 are not being replicated: The same score on the Static-99 equates with wide variations in recidivism rates depending on the sample to which it is compared. They theorize that the problem is due to large reductions in Canadian and U.S. recidivism rates since the 1970s-1980s. They call for the development of new norms.[15]
September 2009
Hanson and colleagues roll out a new version of the Static-99, the Static-99R.[16] The new instrument addresses a major criticism by more precisely considering an offender's age at release, an essential factor in reoffense risk.  The old Static-99 norms are deemed obsolete. They are replaced by data from 23 samples collected by Helmus for her unpublished Master's thesis. The samples vary widely in regard to risk. For estimating risk, the developers now recommend use of the cohort matching procedure to select among four new reference group options. They also introduce the concepts of percentile ranks and relative risk ratios, along with a new Evaluators’ Workbook for Static-99R and Static-2002R. Instructions for selecting reference groups other than routine corrections are confusing and speculative. Research is lacking to demonstrate that selecting other than routine corrections reference group produces more accurate risk estimates.[17]
November 2009
Just two months after its introduction, the Evaluators’ Workbook for Static-99R and Static-2002R is withdrawn due to errors in its actuarial tables.[18] The replacement workbook provides the same confusing and speculative method for selecting a nonroutine reference group, a method that lacks scientific validation and reliability.
An international team of researchers presents large-scale data from the United States, New Zealand and Australia indicating that the Static-99 would be more accurate if it took better account of an offender's age.[19] The Static-99 developers do not immediately embrace these researchers' suggestions.
January 2012
Amy Phenix and colleagues introduce a revised Evaluators’ Workbook for Static-99R and Static-2002R.[20] The new manual makes a number of revisions both to the underlying data (including percentile rank and relative risk ratio data) and to the recommended procedure for selecting a reference group. Now, in an increasingly complex procedure, offenders are to be compared to one of three reference groups, based on how many external risk factors they possess. The groups include Routine Corrections (low risk), Preselected Treatment Need (moderate risk), and Preselected High Risk Need (high risk). Subsequent research shows that using density of external risk factors to select among the three reference group options is not valid and has no proven reliability. [21]A fourth reference group, Nonroutine Corrections, may be selected using a separate cohort-matching procedure. New research indicates that evaluators who are retained most often by the prosecution are more likely than others to select the high-risk reference group, [22]  which has base rates much higher than in contemporary sexual recidivism studies and will thus produce exaggerated risk estimates.[23]    
July 2012
Six months later, the percentile ranks and relative risk ratios are once again modified, with the issuance of the third edition of the Static-99R and Static-2002R Evaluators’ Handbook.[24] No additional data is provided to justify that the selection of nonroutine reference groups produces more accurate risk estimates than choosing the routine corrections reference group.
October 2012
In an article published in Criminal Justice & Behavior, the developers concede that risk estimates for the 23 offender samples undergirding the Static-99 vary widely. Further, absolute risk levels for typical sex offenders are far lower than previously reported, with the typical sex offender having about a 7% chance of committing a new sex offense within five years. They theorize that the Static-99 might be inflating risk of reoffense due to the fact that the offenders in its underlying samples tended to be higher risk than average.[25]
The repeated refusal of the Static-99 developers to share their underlying data with other researchers, so that its accuracy can be verified, leads to a court order excluding use of the instrument in a Wisconsin case.[26]
October 2013
At an annual ATSA convention, Hanson and Phenix report that an entirely new reference group selection system will be released in a peer-reviewed article in Spring 2014.[27] The new system will include only two reference groups: Routine Corrections and Preselected High Risk High Need.  An atypical sample of offenders from a state hospital in Bridgewater, Massachusetts dating back to 1958 is to be removed altogether, along with some other samples, while some new data sets are to be added.
October 2014
At the annual ATSA convention, the developers once again announce that the anticipated rollout of the new system has been pushed back pending acceptance of the manuscript for publication. Helmus nonetheless presents an overview.[28] She reports that the new system will abandon two out of the current four reference groups, retaining only Routine Corrections and Preselected High Risk Need.   Evaluators should now use the Routine Corrections norms as the default unless local norms (with a minimum of 100 recidivists) are available. Evaluators will be permitted to choose the Preselected High Risk Need norms based on “strong, case-specific justification.” No specific guidance nor empirical evidence to support such a procedure is proffered. A number of other new options for reporting risk information are also presented, including the idea of combining Static-99 data with that from newly developed, so-called "dynamic risk instruments."   


[1] Hanson, R. K. (1997). The development of a brief actuarial risk scale for sexual offense recidivism. (Unpublished report 97-04). Ottawa: Department of the Solicitor General of Canada.
[2] Grubin, D. (1998). Sex offending against children: Understanding the risk. Unpublished report, Police Research Series Paper 99. London: Home Office.
[3] Hanson, R.K. & Thornton, D. (1999).  Static 99: Improving Actuarial Risk Assessments for Sex Offenders. Unpublished paper
[4] Hanson, R. K., & Thornton, D. (2000). Improving risk assessments for sex offenders: A comparison of three actuarial scales. Law and Human Behavior, 24(1), 119-136.
[5] Harris, A. J. R., Phenix, A., Hanson, R. K., & Thornton, D. (2003). Static-99 coding rules: Revised 2003. Ottawa, ON: Solicitor General Canada.
[6] Hanson, R.K., Helmus, L., & Thornton, D (2010). Predicting recidivism amongst sexual offenders: A multi-site study of Static-2002. Law & Human Behavior 34, 198-211.
[7] Helmus, L. (2007). A multi-site comparison of the validity and utility of the Static-99 and Static-2002 for risk assessment with sexual offenders. Unpublished Honour’s thesis, Carleton University, Ottawa, ON, Canada.
[8] Helmus, L. (2008, September). Static-99 Recidivism Percentages by Risk Level. Last Updated September 25, 2008. Unpublished paper.
[9] Phenix, A., Helmus, L., & Hanson, R.K. (2008, September). Evaluators’ Workbook. Unpublished, September 28, 2008
[10] Harris, A. J. R., Hanson, K., & Helmus, L. (2008). Are new norms needed for Static-99? Workshop presented at the ATSA 27th Annual Research and Treatment Conference on October 23, 2008, Atlanta: GA. Available at
[11] Doren, D., & Thornton, D. (2008). New Norms for Static-99: A Briefing. A workshop sponsored by Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center on November 10, 2008. Madison, WI.
[12] Phenix, A. & Arnold, D. (2008, December). Proposed Considerations for Conducting Sex Offender Risk Assessment Draft 12-14-08. Unpublished paper.
[13] Abbott, B. (2009). Applicability of the new Static-99 experience tables in sexually violent predator risk assessments. Sexual Offender Treatment, 1, 1-24.
[14] Helmus, L., Hanson, R. K., & Thornton, D. (2009). Reporting Static-99 in light of new research on recidivism norms. The Forum, 21(1), Winter 2009, 38-45.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Hanson, R. K., Phenix, A., & Helmus, L. (2009, September). Static-99(R) and Static-2002(R): How to Interpret and Report in Light of Recent Research. Paper presented at the 28th Annual Research and Treatment Conference of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, Dallas, TX, September 28, 2009.
[17] DeClue, G. & Zavodny, D. (2014). Forensic use of the Static-99R: Part 4. Risk Communication. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 1(3), 145-161.
[18] Phenix, A., Helmus, L., & Hanson, R.K. (2009, November). Evaluators’ Workbook. Unpublished, November 3, 2009.
[19] Wollert, R., Cramer, E., Waggoner, J., Skelton, A., & Vess, J. (2010). Recent Research (N = 9,305) Underscores the Importance of Using Age-Stratified Actuarial Tables in Sex Offender Risk Assessments. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 22 (4), 471-490. See also: "Age tables improve sex offender risk estimates," In the News blog, Dec. 1, 2010.
[20] Phenix, A., Helmus, L., & Hanson, R.K. (2012, January). Evaluators’ Workbook. Unpublished, January 9, 2012.
[21] Abbott, B.R. (2013). The Utility of Assessing “External Risk Factors” When Selecting Static-99R Reference Groups. Open Access Journal of Forensic Psychology, 5, 89-118.
[22] Chevalier, C., Boccaccini, M. T., Murrie, D. C. & Varela, J. G. (2014), Static-99R Reporting Practices in Sexually Violent Predator Cases: Does Norm Selection Reflect  Adversarial Allegiance? Law & Human Behavior. To request a copy from the author, click HERE.
[23] Abbott (2013) op. cit.
[24] Phenix, A., Helmus, L., & Hanson, R.K. (2012, July). Evaluators’ Workbook. Unpublished, July 26, 2012.
[25] Helmus, Hanson, Thornton, Babchishin, & Harris (2012), Absolute recidivism rates predicted by Static-99R and Static-2002R sex offender risk assessment tools vary across samples: A meta-analysis, Criminal Justice & Behavior. See also: "Static-99R risk estimates wildly unstable, developers admit," In the News blog, Oct. 18, 2012.
[27] Hanson, R.K. & Phenix, A. (2013, October). Report writing for the Static-99R and Static-2002R. Preconference seminar presented at the 32nd Annual Research and Treatment Conference of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, Chicago, IL, October 30, 2013. See also: "Static-99 'norms du jour' get yet another makeover," In the News blog, Nov. 17, 2013.
[28] Helmus, L.M. (2014, October). Absolute recidivism estimates for Static-99R and Static-2002R: Current research and recommendations. Paper presented at the 33rd Annual Research and Treatment Conference of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, San Diego, CA, October 30, 2014.
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*Many thanks to Marcus Boccaccini, Gregory DeClue, Daniel Murrie and other knowledgeable colleagues for their valuable feedback.  

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Related blog posts:
·        Static-99 "norms du jour" get yet another makeover (Nov. 17, 2013)
·        Age tables improve sex offender risk estimates (Dec. 1, 2010)
·        New study: Do popular actuarials work? (April 20, 2010)
·        Delusional campaign for a world without risk (April 3, 2010)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Upcoming forensic psychology trainings in Australia

I will be traveling to Australia next month to give a series of trainings, seminars and keynote addresses at Bond University on the Gold Coast (where I am a visiting research scholar), in Brisbane, and at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Here are descriptions and dates, in case you are nearby and interested in attending. For further information, click on any of the links below. I look forward to seeing some of you there.

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This half-day training workshop will be offered twice:
A related talk on forensic psychologists and social media will be given at Bond University on Wednesday, Oct. 22.

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This career talk for students and faculty will be held at Bond University in Robina, Tuesday, Oct. 21.

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This keynote talk will be offered twice:

Monday, September 15, 2014

Forensic psychology: Is it the career for me?

I get many emails and phone calls from students interested in pursuing forensic psychology as a career. There is surprisingly little information available online to answer these students' questions. So, by popular demand, I have revised my 2007 overview in order to provide more current guidance, especially tailored toward frequently-asked student questions. You may also want to review the comments sections of my original essay, which is posted at each of my two professional blogs (HERE and HERE).

First off, what is a forensic psychologist?

Forensic psychologists are most commonly licensed psychologists who specialize in applying psychological knowledge to legal matters, both in the criminal and civil arenas. They hold graduate degrees in psychology, most often a PhD or a PsyD.

Forensic psychology is a subdiscipline of psychology. It has its own professional organizations, training programs, and research journals. Forensic psychologists are found in academia, public service, and the private sector.

Forensic psychologists assist in a wide variety of legal matters, including:
  • mental state examinations of criminal defendants (insanity, competency to stand trial, etc.) 
  • child custody/family law 
  • violence risk assessment 
  • civil law (personal injury cases) 
  • social science research (e.g., explaining a scholarly topic such as memory research to a jury) 
  • mediation/dispute resolution
  • jury selection 
  • ... and many more

What is the state of the field?

Forensic psychology is a rapidly growing discipline. The last time I checked, the American Psychology-Law Society had about 3,000 members, and it continues to grow. Its exponential growth is driven by a couple of factors. Many clinical psychologists have turned to forensic work to escape the confines of managed care. And students are attracted by our culture's obsession with all things criminal (as well as fictional depictions such as in the TV show Criminal Minds).

The growth of forensic psychology is not without controversy. Some accuse forensic psychologists of being hired guns who can be paid to parrot a certain opinion. Recent court decisions are causing increasing scientific scrutiny of psychological evidence. This in turn is leading to the development of increasingly rigorous training programs, instruments, and procedures that will allow us to withstand such adversarial scrutiny.

In the long run, well-trained forensic psychologists will likely fare well in the increasingly skeptical and demanding marketplace of the future.

What skills must a forensic psychologist have?

Forensic psychologists are psychological scientists. We compare data from multiple sources in order to test alternative hypotheses. The emphasis is on written reports and court testimony that are scientifically valid and can withstand scrutiny in the adversarial environment of the courtroom. A good forensic psychology combines a strong science background with solid investigatory skills.

Becoming a successful forensic psychologist requires, at minimum, the following:

  • solid clinical psychology training and experience 
  • firm grounding in scientific theory and empirical research (understanding of scientific validity, research design, statistics, and testing) 
  • critical thinking skills 
  • thorough knowledge of social and cultural issues 
  • legal knowledge (including mental health law, case law, and courtroom procedures) 
  • excellent writing skills 
  • strong oral presentation skills 
  • ability to maintain one's composure under stress

Can I pursue forensic psychology as an undergraduate major?

I get a lot of queries from high school students who have searched high and low for forensic psychology undergraduate programs, and come up empty. That is because forensic psychology is only rarely offered as an undergraduate major. The specialization process begins much later – in graduate school or beyond.

High school students interested in forensic psychology may choose to major in psychology in college. However, even this is not a requirement. Some professionals and educators even advocate that you major in something other than psychology, in order to get a more well-rounded education.  (I myself majored in journalism, and worked in that field before deciding to become a psychologist. I didn't take one single psychology course in college.)

Forensic psychology is a postdoctoral specialization. That means that a student first obtains a doctoral degree (PhD or PsyD) in clinical psychology, and then pursues a postdoctoral specialization in forensics. 

Must I earn a doctoral degree to become a forensic psychologist?

With the meteoric rise in popularity of forensic psychology, for-profit educational institutions are rushing to cash in. Distance-learning options have sprouted up like mushrooms after a heavy rain. So too, terminal master's programs are an increasingly popular option – requiring only one or two years of postgraduate education in lieu of the traditional four or more.

Master's level degrees may ultimately be a case of false advertising. Master's level clinicians will probably have trouble competing in a field dominated by professionals with more advanced degrees. As I wrote in a 2009 essay that was critical of this trend, "Would you trust a 'master's level dentist' to pull your tooth? Or a 'bachelor's level attorney' to defend you in court?" I predict that, at least in the near term, these clinicians will be restricted to lower-level occupations in the prison-industrial complex.

A growing number of graduate schools are also bucking the postdoctoral tradition by adding forensic tracks, so that students can begin their forensic specialization during graduate school.

A few programs also offer dual, or joint, graduate degrees in psychology and law. Finally, some law schools offer a scaled-down, one-year Master of Legal Studies degree. Having a dual degree may make one more competitive, but for most practitioners it is not realistic or cost-effective.

Despite the field's rapid growth, there is still no universal consensus as to what training models and curricula are adequate in order to prepare students for real-world forensic practice. With that in mind, David DeMatteo of Drexel University and colleagues have proposed a set of core competencies for doctoral-level forensic psychology training curricula. At minimum, they say, students should get training and experience in the traditional areas of substantive psychology and research methodology, along with specialized advanced training in:

  • Legal knowledge 
  • Integrative law-psychology knowledge 
  • Ethics and professional issues in forensic psychology 
  • Clinical forensic psychology

Alas, in reviewing the curricula for the roughly 35 doctoral or joint-degree programs with training in forensic psychology, DeMatteo and his colleagues found only three programs that included all four components. For example, only about 40% offered courses falling under "legal knowledge." More alarmingly, only three programs reported offering courses specifically addressing ethical and professional issues in forensic psychology.

After my graduate degree, what's next?

Once an aspiring forensic psychologist obtains his or her graduate degree, it is time for the real training to begin. You must obtain a minimum number of hours of postdoctoral training before you can apply for a license to practice independently. (The exact training requirements vary by state.)

There are still only a handful of formal postdoctoral fellowship programs in the United States. These rigorous programs are aimed at training future leaders in the field. They are quite small and selective, typically accepting only one to two candidates per year.

The American Psychology-Law Society's resource directory of these postdoctoral fellowship programs is HERE

What tips do you have for trainees?

Becoming successful in this field is not easy. However, for those with the energy, stamina and critical thinking skills, it can be a rewarding occupation. A few tips:

  • Apply for forensic-related internships, such as at forensic hospitals, correctional facilities, and community mental health settings. 
  • Tailor your doctoral dissertation to a psychology-law topic in your area of professional interests. 
  • Become a student member of the American Psychology-Law Society, an interdisciplinary organization devoted to scholarship, practice, and public service in psychology and law. 
  • Stay current by regularly browsing the leading journals in the field, among them Law and Human Behavior, Behavioral Sciences and the Law, and Psychology, Public Policy, and Law
  • Last but not least, take time to experience life. Study abroad, volunteer in your local community, do anything to broaden the life experiences that you will bring to the field.

What about criminal profiling?

One of students’ biggest misconceptions about forensic psychology is that we do criminal profiling. This mythology comes directly from movies and TV shows such as Silence of the Lambs (among my least favorite movies ever!), Criminal Minds, and The Profiler.

In reality, most law enforcement agencies do not regularly use criminal profiling methods. When they do, they typically employ profilers with extensive backgrounds in law enforcement rather than in psychology. Perhaps more importantly, many scholars dispute that profiling even qualifies as a valid scientific method meriting inclusion in the behavioral sciences.

So, if your primary interest is in criminal profiling, the field of forensic psychology may not be for you.

Can I have an interview?

Some teachers – at the high school, college and even graduate levels – assign their students to conduct interviews with practitioners. I can't tell you how annoying it is to be constantly interrupted by students calling and emailing to request one-on-one interviews. If I granted all of these requests, I wouldn't have time to do anything else!

Instead, I hope this essay serves as my contribution. For more on me, feel free to browse my professional website -- which has additional resources -- or read my professional profile in Cengage Learning's 2012 Forensic Science textbook.

Further resources

The original version of this essay, "What's it take to become a forensic psychologist," was posted on my In the News blog on Sept. 19, 2007, and on my Psychology Today blog, Witness, on Oct. 27, 2010. Click on those links to browse additional Q&A in their Comments sections.

The American Psychology-Law Society's 2014-2015 guide to graduate training programs in forensic psychology and legal psychology is available HERE.

Should forensic psychologists have minimal training? (my 2009 essay on master's level training programs)

"Educational and training models in forensic psychology," by David DeMatteo, Geoffrey Marczyk, Daniel Krauss and Jeffrey Burl, Training and Education in Professional Psychology, Vol 3(3), Aug 2009, 184-191. doi: 10.1037/a0014582

"Raising the bar: The case for doctoral training in forensic psychology," by Carl B. Clements and Emily E. Wakeman, Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, Vol. 7 Number 2, 2007

"The time is now: The emerging need for master's-level training in forensic psychology," by Matt Zaitchik, Garrett Berman, Don Whitworth and Judith Platania, Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, Vol. 7 Number 2, 2007

The Minority Affairs Committee of AP-LS has created a dedicated YouTube channel with about a dozen innovative videos on various aspects of psychology-law and education in the field

(c) Copyright Karen Franklin 2014 - All rights reserved

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