A core principle of our Threat Violence and Risk Management practice is prevention; our assessments are designed to prevent an attack on a potential target through open-source intelligence, investigative skills and corroboration. Using this information and evidence, we suggest a plan of action for our clients that will not only benefit them — and perhaps avoid violence — but will also keep a troubled individual from harming themselves.

Incarceration is also a type of preventive threat assessment; a court weighs an individual’s potential for harming society through a lawful lens, and its sentence is intended to prevent any future wrongdoing. But as we observe our American prison system expand beyond capacity, become increasingly inefficient and struggle with its inherent duty to fairly distribute justice, I wonder how our process for threat evaluations could play a role in reform.

Prison Overcrowding Says Who Stays, and Who Goes

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “The U.S. has 4 percent of the world’s population, but roughly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.” Federal and state prisons hold some 1.5 million inmates, and 6.2 million people are in local jails, on parole or on probation.

There are many factors contributing to this severe overcrowding, most of which we will not be able to address here, but it is abundantly clear that something in the system is broken. Pennsylvania alone has 50,000 individuals in state custody, whether in local jails, on probation or on parole. Seven percent of the state’s overall budget is spent on incarceration-related issues — that’s $2 billion — and yet there is a bed shortage for inmates.

Much of this overcrowding is attributed to minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenders who, regardless of a prosecutor’s or judge’s opinion, are incarcerated for their crime. Many of these instances relate to the ongoing opioid epidemic.

But as is the case in Pennsylvania, there is a lack of resources for these individuals. As a result, violent criminals are often released early to make room for the influx. Some see this initiative as a positive trend, not only in terms of decreasing the incarcerated population, but also as a tangible way out for those who served decades and evidenced rehabilitation. Of course, there are also concerns over whether these violent offenders will commit more, perhaps even more nefarious, crimes.

Behavior-Based Modeling: A Better Way to Balance Potential for Good

When it comes to assessing an individual’s capacity to commit a criminal act, behavior-based models have long proven to be the most effective way to prevent targeted violence. This model avoids unjust or erroneous assessment issues, such as prejudice based on demographics like race, socioeconomic standing and gender.

After Columbine, the U.S Department of Education and most learning institutions established this “fact-based” approach in their threat assessment process. This process relies primarily on an appraisal of behaviors—rather than on stated threats, or socioeconomic and other demographic traits—as the basis for determining whether there is cause for concern.[1]

My firm pays particular attention to a subject’s motives and attack-related behaviors, in addition to “the systems” (family, work, community, faith-based institutions, criminal justice, mental health and social services) with which the individual is involved. This is the key to assessing and managing a potential threat; we don’t use predictive scores based on profiles.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on federal sentencing guidelines, but I am encouraged by several bipartisan legislative initiatives that are at least recognizing the prison system’s restrictiveness and its lack of individual-based assessments for prisoners. These include the Prison Reform and Redemption Act introduced in the House of Representatives, which seeks to build a federal, prison-wide system for evaluating a prisoner’s risk for recidivism, and in turn provide programs designed to manage those with a low risk. These could include another  “systems approach”; mental health care, vocational training and substance abuse treatment.

As the bipartisan momentum increases for prison reform, further efforts must be made to develop risk assessment tools like those used by the Department of Education and security risk management firms like Hillard Heintze. They will help the judicial system do what we do every day—carefully orchestrate a series of recommendations and an action plan based on the facts of individual behavior. In turn, the prison system could support an individual’s access to opportunities for moving their lives forward in a positive fashion.


[1] Fein, R. & Vossekuil, B. Protective Intelligence and Threat Assessment Investigations: A Guide for State

and Local Law Enforcement Officials. U. S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National

Institute of Justice: Washington, D. C. (July 1998).