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“The Struggle is Real”: Punitive Assessment in Community Services

Published onNov 05, 2023
“The Struggle is Real”: Punitive Assessment in Community Services


Risk tools, criminal justice, front line discretion, community supports, social work, punitive


Community practitioners working outside criminal justice frequently assess criminalized individuals and their circumstances. They use tools to guide intake, referrals, case work and supports, via re-entry programs, outreach teams, and in agencies focused on homelessness, mental health or substance use. Community-based agencies are especially involved in risk management when working with criminalized individuals described as high-risk or as having ‘complex-needs1’, like people stuck in the infamous ‘revolving doors’. Ideally, tools used for assessment help workers match people to the right services, providing empirical justification for triage and case plans and informing best-practice policy as well as funding decisions. As I argue in this paper however, assessment tools and processes are also experienced by service providers as impositions that pathologize without generating effective response and support.

Studies show that surveillance and extra-legal governance practices have significant unintended consequences, spreading criminal justice and other information between regulatory bodies and agencies that enforce, support and punish (see Jain, 2015; 2016; Stuart, 2016). Relatedly, Miller (2014) describes the collusion between social welfare and criminal justice, showing the re-entry process is disproportionately controlling racialized people and communities. Surveillance and control via underfunded and high-barrier bureaucracies is known to cause exhaustion (Halushka, 2020) and to trigger ‘system avoidance’ and social retreat (Brayne, 2014). It also impacts housing and other outcomes through records-based discrimination (Thatcher, 2008). In numerous fields, risk assessment practices are criticized for promoting racist, discriminatory practices and having perverse, punitive and exclusionary effects across criminal justice and other systems.

Professional discretion is key to frontline decision making (Lipsky, 1980). Indeed, penal governance practices and adaptations vary, and scholars demonstrate that contradictory objectives such as care and control, rehabilitation and punishment and other models mix, braid and merge (O’Malley, 1999; Maurutto and Hannah-Moffat 2006; Goodman, Page and Phelps, 2017). Others highlight how ‘non-justice’ practitioners can work with, for and against systems of penal control, while generating important evidence and records about disadvantaged and criminalized people (Quirouette, 2018; Tomczak and Thompson, 2019; Quinn, 2019). While we know penal governance includes mixed logics and individual adaption, we know little about how the process is experienced and negotiated by frontline community practitioners2, a question I explore in this paper. Analysis of care and control in the community is timely, with calls for punishment scholars to consider penal trends beyond the prison (Lynch and Hannah-Moffat, 2018), and inequality scholars underscoring the importance of ‘institutional and administrative linkages between criminal justice and other systems, agencies and institutions’ (Turney and Wakefield, 2019; 2).

Assessments are central for practitioners and for clients, who often comply with the process imposed in exchange for services and supports. They inform case work, supporting and extending the power and reach of professional judgements (Cohen, 1985) and disciplinary projects (Foucault, 1977). Individual assessments are informed by observations, interactions, interviews and data collection, becoming productive through this professional documentation. With interdisciplinary work, assessments amplify ‘legal, moral and therapeutic discourses’ that can be mobilized strategically (Merry, 1990). Assessing risks and needs is then a performative and cultural exercise that can be racialized (Singh, 2017), classed (Gray, 2013), gendered (Hannah-Moffat, 2004), heteronormative (Kerrison, 2018) - ‘constructing’ understandings of the social subject and their context (Werth, 2019)3. The way risk is understood, documented and responded to is highly variable and imbued with numerous biases.

Drawing on data from 105 qualitative interviews, document analysis, and ethnographic observations, I explore how frontline community practitioners (aka service providers) produce evidence about clients via assessment tools. Rather than analyzing one particular tool or focusing on how information produced by assessments impacts service decisions and outcomes, I document and analyze how practitioners experience and manage the work of formally documenting risk/needs related to clients. In Part A I describe challenges in three sections, focusing on: (a) the composition of tools; (b) the process of using them; and (c) the context of practice. Part B returns to these three sections to analyse reports of frontline discretion and propose argument about the importance of practice context and (lacking) resources. Community service practitioners integrate correctional and other tools, and the process of assessment is often experienced as punitive or problematic. Certainly, the resources-deprived context in which they work cranks up punitive aspects. I argue that despite efforts to adapt, community practitioners are frustrated by assessment tools and practices, partly because of their inability to meet the needs or respond to the risks they are assessing.

Community Services, Risk and Criminal Justice

Scholars have theorized and examined how risk and crime control duties have been downloaded from the state to individuals and organizations that serve them (Garland, 2001; Soss, Fording, and Schram, 2011; Mythen, Walkate and Kemshall, 2012). Penal boundaries have shifted social work, where practitioners have adopted risk-led service delivery practices, allocating resources according to these evaluations (Webb, 2007; Kemshall, 2010; Parton, 2011). According to Hardy (2015), who studied mental health and probation, assessments in contemporary social work are aggregations of decontextualized items of information. These dispositional, historical and clinical aggregations cumulatively define the nature of work deemed necessary to reduce or manage risk. Risk-based practices4 have been broadly documented and similarly criticized in prisons, probation and parole (Fitzgibbon, 2011; Werth, 2017), but also in mental health services (Castel, 1991; Hardy, 2015), child welfare or youth justice (Parton, 2011; Goddard and Myers, 2017) and shelters (Zufferey, 2008).

Risk tools are even theorized as a ‘new way of thinking about human beings’ (Mehozay and Fisher, 2019), although other work complicates the claim that risk is an entirely ‘new’ episteme, showing discretion and mixed or ‘braided’ models are most common in practice (O’Malley, 1999; Hutchinson, 2006; Hannah-Moffat, Maurutto, and Turnbull, 2009). Despite standardization efforts, studies about implementation of risk tools show practitioners adapt to individual cases and contexts, combining actuarial and clinical welfare-based rehabilitation logics (Moore, 2007; Goddard, 2012). Community service providers work in alliance with and in resistance to corrections and systems of punitive governance, enforcing regulation, inclusionary control and managing risk, while also resisting and pushing for radical systemic change (Goddard et al., 2015; Tomczak and Thompson, 2019).

As ‘knowledge brokers’ (Ericson and Haggerty, 1997), community practitioners and organizations are often asked to use technologies of government (O’Malley, 2004) to anticipate problems and ‘tame chance’ (Hacking, 1990). Practitioners negotiate and adapt, but risk assessments still shape how agencies and programs categorize clients, respond to client issues, and produce mechanisms for information sharing across stakeholder groups (Webb, 2007; Kemshall et al., 2013; Hardy, 2015). Practitioners generate records that circulate across temporal, geographical and institutional boundaries. These records are then used in contexts radically different than where they were generated by police, courts, corrections, welfare and health practitioners.

‘Non-justice’ community practitioners occupy multiple roles within the carceral net. They work with people who have been criminalized for interconnected reasons. People, whose experiences are driven by or aggravated by poverty, racism, discrimination and lack of social and other supports. As they engage daily with agents of law enforcement, practitioners spend much of their time reviewing and producing evidence about social, medical and criminal justice histories, problems and goals. As gatekeepers that can withdraw supports, they make decisions based on information and labels from criminal justice. Their work highlights how “penal and welfare institutions form a single policy regime aimed at the governance of social marginality” (Beckett and Western, 2001: 55).

Studies about the policing of ‘skid row’ (Huey, 2007; Jain, 2015; Stuart, 2016) or community corrections (Phelps, 2013; Miller, 2018) also show support and punishment can mix. Scholars have documented oppressive conditions in social services that combine care and control (e.g. Soss, Fording and Schram, 2011; Goddard and Myers, 2017). Writing about formerly incarcerated men, Halushka (2020) focuses on rules, procedures, bureaucracies and the burdensome ‘runaround’ that is part of the re-entry process, where both criminal justice and welfare overlap. Theorizing such dynamics, McNeill (2019) suggests this type of ‘conditionality’ of support can be characterized as degradation – constructing marginalized people as denizens. This work highlights the cumulative impact of delays, paperwork and interactions that are practically and emotionally exhausting.

Given what we know, it is essential to unpack the ‘black box’ to show more specifically how frontline workers act as street level bureaucrats (Lipsky, 1980), using their agency to adapt to their local context and available resources. We gain to better understand the pressure they feel to document and produce evidence about intersections of social marginality and criminal justice problems. While we know community service agencies are part of the penal state apparatus, there is evidence that practitioners can resist and adapt practices in meaningful and locally specific ways. Since risk assessment tools and practices are so impactful, it is useful to clarify how practitioners experience and negotiate their use when working with people who are criminalized and marginalized.

Data and methods

In this article I draw from three sources of data: 105 in-depth qualitative interviews; document analysis of (gov/agency) policy, organizational material, case notes, and assessment tools; and over 200 hours of ethnographic fieldwork (2014-2016) in Toronto, Canada. I conducted interviews with 60 case workers, 19 managers, five clinicians, six other service experts and coordinators, and 15 justice professionals (police, probation and lawyers) working in private, public, and voluntary organizations5. Regarding inclusion criteria, interviewees all worked for agencies and in programs that support multiply marginalized people in conflict with the law (via advocacy, emergency supports, housing, diversion, re-entry, therapeutic and harm reduction efforts)6. I conducted interviews at community centers, safe houses, clinics, courthouses, social justice agencies, hospitals and emergency shelters, often in the offices of respondents or their managers. Each interview focused on professional practice and lasted 60-240 minutes. 100/105 interviews were audio recorded and transcribed.

Themes were developed as interviews and observations unfolded, using “middle ground” qualitative approaches built on social constructivist, realist, grounded theory and standpoint traditions. First, I completed manual analysis, consisting of line-by-line reading of all data, then highlighting, flagging, and writing on sections and passages to identify patterns. Interviews were organized and coded using NVivo software. I coded notes from 30+ site visits, where I toured facilities, participated in 9 shadow shifts and met staff, residents or clients. I coded policy and secondary data obtained online or through participants, such as policy manuals, program rules, case management policies, performance reports, intake tools and screeners, organizational charts, partnership agreements, and case files contents. Thematic analysis is not linked with a singular theoretical framework and served as an adaptable and constructive way to consider policy, process, and practice, as well as perceptions, interpretations, and experiences (Braun & Clarke, 2006). This strategy supported consistency while also allowing for openness to unexpected insights (Fereday and Muir-Cochrane, 2006), for instance with unplanned themes like the cumulative toll of assessment work. Together, the material helped situate institutional logics and clarify roles of practitioners and circumstances under which they work.

Part A – What are the challenges and problems?

In the following pages, I identify challenges and problems related to: (a) assessment tools; (b) their application in practice; and (c) the context in which they are used. Later, in part B, I return to each of these challenges to highlight how practitioners attempt to negotiate and use discretion.

Tools of the Trade: formalizing the production of evidence about clients

All 105 participants talked about assessment (and so informed the present analysis), but in this paper, I draw most from interviews with 79 case workers, frontline workers and managers who talked about using a range of imposed and optional assessment instruments - some agency specific, others mandated by authorities (e.g. Ontario Common Assessment of Need, Admission and Discharge Criteria and Assessment Tool). To different extents, participants talked about current (and past) tools and about working in multiple agencies or programs7. What I term here as ‘assessments’ (AKA risk tools, guides, screeners, intake guide8) are instruments used to formally evaluate clients for the purposes of prediction, triage, prioritization, referrals, system navigation, and individual case management9. Interviewees spoke of using various tools (e.g. Drug Abuse Screening Test, Global Appraisal of Individual Needs Screener) and having access to confidential information (on and off record) from police, probation, income support or disability and hospital records, pre-sentence reports and psychiatric tools like the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised or the Sex Offender Risk Appraisal Guide. Community service providers rely on varied tools, labels and logics from health, criminal justice or social work, and use arrest information for their non-justice objectives.

Assessments are used to document and screen for high-risk behaviors and to identify individuals with exceptional ‘complexity’. This term refers to multiple interlocking and compounding experiences that practitioners help clients with issues spanning social, legal, and therapeutic dimensions, but described mostly at the individual level. For instance, one non-profit agency that is a centralized access point for housing and case management uses a complexity score to represent client issues by calculating: homelessness, legal issues, psychotic symptoms, brain injuries, substance use, level of functioning, risk to self and the barriers to receiving service. Practitioners I interviewed and tools I analyzed identify the risk of violence, sexual deviance, fire, destruction of property, and suicidality as contributing factors associated with higher complexity scores. These concerns were also recurring themes discussed in local meetings, working groups, committees and webinars, confirming that assessments of risk and complexity are an issue beyond the sample of interviewees.

Community practitioners outside the justice system flag justice involvement and talk about criminogenic factors. Though many are critical of corrections-based tools, they too engage with information, labels and records issued by police, courts and prisons. As gatekeepers with authority to allot, refer or withdraw supports, service providers develop understandings of what clients are like and make decisions based partly on information and labels from criminal justice. This is accomplished by asking that clients disclose charges, bail conditions and probation or parole to assess risks to them, their organization and to public safety. To avoid waiting months for CPIC police record checks, delaying access to housing or supports, practitioners also connect with probation, who can talk about previous charges as well as behavior and motivation in custody. Inter-institutional cooperation and information sharing sustains the long-term surveillance and control of clients.

Community tools and practices for assessing individuals can be punitive in part because they are shaped by police, forensic and other disciplinary records, or by correctional logics and risk tools from criminal justice. A reintegration program manager explains when and how records and criminogenic needs matter.

We have to stay aware of both needs and risks. Sometimes, risks associated with clients’ behaviors should be considered when you’re making plans for service. For example, we are close to a school. If a person has a record of sexual offences, we provide service, just not here. We meet their need for housing with our residence, but we’re also aware of risks associated with crime. Or with continued drug use. This is why police frequently visit our houses, it’s all about bail compliance (C03)

This shows how information is used and surveillance is normalized. Client responsivity, social capital and personal or professional supports are also assessed, because as one service provider explains “the more supports an individual has, the better we minimize risk of future conflict or relapse or whatever triggers them.” (C14). This underscores how certain needs are assumed to be especially criminogenic, like substance use and homelessness.

Practitioners are aware of systemic tendencies to individualize responsibility to govern risk. Risk factors can be difficult or impossible to address given current available resources, which can put into question the value of assessment. One mental health worker questions the usefulness of risk tools (the LSI-OR10):

The Level of Service Inventory - it measures risk of recidivism into the Criminal Justice System - risk to reoffend. It’s something we do with clients when they come into the agency. Then again when we’re discharging, to see if we’ve helped raise or lower that risk. Unfortunately, some of the markers are static, or there’s not a lot we can do about them (M02)

Issues with structural barriers frustrate practitioners, who feel they cannot deliver what clients need to ‘govern risks’ - like access to housing, education, employment and social support. Tools like the LSI-OR pathologize individuals, obscuring powerful organizational and structural inequalities (see also Starr, 2014; Hannah-Moffat, 2016; Werth, 2019; Prins, 2019, Cardoso 2020). For instance, clients with records of violence, sex offenses, or self-harming are often excluded from housing programs, exacerbating problems with the criminalization and perpetuation of homelessness.

Some practitioners deplore how their work is shaped by risk management and how that contributes to the expansion of carceral and social control over vulnerable people. One such outreach worker describes how:

When you assess client risk, you assess it from the perspective of liability, risk to others and exclusion criteria -- can call it whatever you want, those are the reasons we do risk assessments. I’d say it’s very much within the realm of normal clinical practice to constantly assess for risk of suicidality or homicidality or overdose. When we talk about official risk assessments, they’re not done to benefit the client, or from their perspective right? (M05)

This comment illustrates how professional tools matter – positioning clients as ‘possibly dangerous’ (see also Werth, 2018) in relation to violence, safety, compliance, producing a risk subject who is worthy of extra scrutiny. It also highlights critical professional perspectives. Surveillance and risk aversion are embedded in institutional practice and help guide the management of criminogenic and organizational risk (Power, 2004; Hutter and Power, 2005). For example, practitioners worry about being held responsible for violence, self-harm or death. Assessment tools and practices are punitive when they are situated in an institutional framework that prioritizes protection from liability, or prediction of recidivism, or of risk to public safety, over client relationships and service.

The Assessment Process

Interviewees characterize assessment as a messy, layered, ongoing process of collecting and producing evidence about individuals, often beginning before they are accepted into programs. Referrals to programs, case management and housing require extensive assessment and documentation (court, housing, police records), which is then often funneled through and stored in centralized access points. Applicants must sign consent forms allowing for information exchange before services can be accessed. The assessment process can provide essential opportunity for data collection and interaction. It is also a social performance that shapes rapport between clients and service providers. Working with clients shuttled around the ‘revolving doors’ of emergency and criminal justice systems, practitioners in my study spoke of challenges related to the practical aspect of doing assessments. It bears mention that practitioners bemoan difficulties from their point of view, but also stress difficulties experienced by clients.

Four themes were highlighted in interviews and fieldwork as particularly challenging: consent, trust, timing and setting. Despite it being a routine aspect of work, the assessment process was consistently characterized as punitive for coercing consent, impeding good rapport and trust, highlighting power dynamics, and re-traumatizing marginalized people and practitioners with questions imposed in difficult spaces at difficult times.

Practitioners explained how client consent is coerced, by virtue of it being a requirement for so many services. One manager explains that clients who don’t consent to share information “are not even getting close to housing!” (M14). Those who won’t open up to share are refused service because practitioners “can’t operate in the dark” (M01). Intake for most programs and supports begin with consent forms, and requests for a range of records and information. Clearly establishing consent to collect, share, and store information about clients is important but can lead to exclusion. Practitioners described how some clients choose to sleep outside rather than consent to having their information collected and shared, and to avoid formal records. In contrast, some explained the process of routine data collection can be so normalized that clients barely realize that they are being assessed. Consent can be particularly difficult to establish clearly with people experiencing mental distress or cognition or memory issues. This is also true for clients under the influence of drugs or alcohol whose fitness is described as debatable, or clients with whom communication is challenging for a range of reasons. Nevertheless, access to community services and to housing is conditional on consent and cooperation from clients (see also Flint, 2009; Dej, 2016; Quirouette, 2016).

Assessments can facilitate and guide interventions, but they also shape relationships between practitioners and their clients. Building trust can be challenging, and practitioners highlighted that clients can resist the assessment process because of prior bad experiences. Studies have reported mistrust of outreach workers in homeless groups (Kydra and Compton, 2009), and stressed the multifaceted effects of penal subjugation on marginalized communities (Bell, 2019). This point is especially pressing given the over-representation of people who are Black, Indigenous, disadvantaged, or without housing in Canadian emergency and criminal justice systems. The importance of power, trust and legitimacy issues was stressed in numerous meetings, open tables, events and webinar trainings. It was often brought up, that the assessment process is coercing consent and imposing demands on marginalized people at their wit’s end - at times and in spaces where they are particularly vulnerable.

One interviewee explains that “most clients have spent their entire lives getting screwed by professionals. Cops beating them. Docs jamming needles in their ass. Social workers giving them shit referrals… it’s like “why the hell should I work with you?” (C30). Another working outreach says: “50% of our clients tell us to fuck off, that’s where we start” (M06). Sensitive to client trauma, many talked about how clients facing social stigma and discrimination (re: race, mental health) are most reluctant to trust professionals they don’t know. They hear from clients that the process is culturally inappropriate, insulting, invasive, coercive, exhausting, and too often pointless: “they’ve lost trust, they feel like they’ve gone and tried to access certain services and nothing has ever panned out” (M36). As one webinar speaker puts it, ‘we need information to serve clients, but the assessment process is often dehumanizing’ (fieldnote 2016).

Timing and Setting

Typically, internal agency assessments and case files are described as live documents. They are built in stages and normally take hours over multiple visits to complete. Many practitioners underscored how paperwork can be time-consuming, and often imposed in difficult moments. For example, the internal intake assessment for one mental health program takes on average 105 minutes, with additional screeners taking an hour each. Clients in this program are also required to complete a crisis plan and the Ontario Coordinated Assessment of Needs within the first 30 days of service, which takes another two hours. At another agency, a manager expresses: “We have a fairly extensive intake referral assessment form that we use. We allot an hour but it’s never enough time. There are things the person wants to tell us… and some people need to be redirected – it just takes time, at least a couple hours. Then sometimes we have to go back get more information over the phone, have them sign consent forms for hospital records, legal records.” (M11). Some assessment tools are more than 25 pages long and complete ‘batches’ of assessments can take 6-10 hours for one service point. Practitioners often lamented what they described as a long and invasive process imposed on clients and onto them, without guaranteed outcome.

When meeting clients in alleys, parks, cars or tents, service providers also have to adapt to their location and manage the environment. Interviewees reported facing pressure to make decisions about clients and their setting quickly, despite concerns related to clarity of consent, building rapport and getting accurate information. They explained that inter-institutional coordination is difficult yet essential for managing housing or case management supports, especially at the time of crisis or discharge. People remanded without access to their ID cannot be referred to supportive housing or to residential rehabilitation programs in advance and scramble together a plan when released. In courthouse cells, assessments are frequently rushed because remanded individuals do not have their belongings and are held behind plexiglass, unable to sign paperwork. Practitioners talked about doing their best to navigate ‘external’ settings, meeting the pace and demands imposed by actors in medical or legal fields, often at the expense of what they describe as ideal assessments. Outreach and interdisciplinary work on the street and in ‘other’ institutional settings can be especially challenging. Indeed, ‘street-level bureaucrats’ working across disciplines find that the cultural and symbolic capital they have in their own field (like social work) can be undervalued in other fields (like law/medicine) (see also Halliday et al., 2009; Quinn, 2019). This can mean for example, that case workers are not informed of discharge from jail or hospital.

Context of Practice: accessing and waiting for supports

Lengthy wait times were deplored by all practitioners interviewed, who described clients waiting for supports for years while in dire survival situations. At the time of study, mental health and justice supportive housing was waitlisted for 2-4 years, subsidized housing for 10 years and emergency shelters were at capacity with many hundreds on the street or in tents. Practitioners are particularly frustrated with their inability to meet basic urgent needs and address factors contributing to both criminalization and ongoing marginalization. One court worker describes clients ‘living under bridges’, expressing outrage: ‘how dare I impose my structure on their recovery! We’re going to fill out a 14-page referral and then wait six months until they call us. Until then we’re going to hope they won’t offend or die. It’s ludicrous’ (C19). As others have demonstrated, the imposition of waiting compounds the stress of other bureaucratic obligations built into the structures that govern poor criminalized people (Kohler-Hausmann, 2018; Halushka, 2020). Most respondents expressed frustration with gaps in service, barriers to access, and unthinkably long waitlists for essential things like housing or mental health supports.

Respondents also lamented ‘band-aid’ interventions never work. Many were frustrated to participate in self-perpetuating systems of governance where individuals’ problems cannot be solved because of ongoing structural factors. When resources are so limited that practitioners work in a state of despair, assessments become a default mechanism for justifying client triage and exclusion. And, as Baldry and Dowse write, “individualizing problems and leaning on pathologizing assessments and labels renders invisible the determining effects of negative compounding and cumulative factors embedded in public, non-government and private agency policies and practices and in social and systemic arrangement” (2013; 224).

Triage and exclusion are not the focus of this paper, but awareness of these issues shapes how practitioners think about tools and use them in their work. They know that assessments of intersecting and complex needs can be turned on their head to justify exclusion, increased monitoring and onerous conditions. Indeed, interviewees discussed how assessment requirements create barriers for the most marginalized. Clients described as ‘difficult’ have the most limited options, and this puts extreme pressure on workers who are aware of both client risks and the structural violence they experience (see also Scanlon and Adlam, 2008). In shelters, this can directly lead to the exclusion of people labelled ‘complex’ for referrals to housing.

Housing and services are scarce, but being assessed as having the ‘right’ type of complex needs can facilitate access to supports and programs that define their eligibility criteria to focus on specific clienteles. For example, they can require proof of combinations of the following:

  • Diagnosis of major mental illness (personality disorders) or concurrent disorder

  • Current charges before criminal courts or recent (90-day) release from custody

  • ‘Absolute’ homelessness (not using shelters of any kind for 30 days)

  • Frequent use of withdrawal management services or ER (20+ in year, or 5+ in 2 months)

  • Medical confirmation of dependence to illegal substance (i.e. opiates, crack, meth)

Practitioners are aware that specialized criteria can exclude those who avoid assessment or reject medical diagnoses for mental health issues. Though this situation is taxing, they must comply with requirements to collect and share evidence about clients. Formal diagnosis or lab work, current criminal charges, or police records are examples of documents required in order to be eligible for supports like housing or therapeutic programs.

Almost all practitioners in my study said they found it painful to witness what is experienced by and asked of clients. They described what De Giorgi (2017) called “the treacherous grips of chronic poverty, sudden homelessness, untreated physical and mental suffering, and lack of meaningful social services” (89). Practitioners can find relationships with clients challenging, but organizational and social conditions can cause even more emotion and distress, as inadequate resources make pressures harder to bear (see also Bradley and Sutherland, 1995; Tomczak and Quinn, 2020; Halushka, 2020).

Part B – How are practitioners ‘making-do’?

Practitioners in my study talked about adapting to various clients and contexts, borrowing logics from various fields, to make work easier, safer and more effective. In the following sections, I focus on how they use discretion to negotiate (a) tools, (b) processes, and (c) context of practice. I define discretion in the tradition of Lipsky’s (1980) theory of street-level bureaucrats who deal with involuntary clients, contradictory roles, difficult conditions and non-availability of resources. Discretion then implies levels of freedom, power, or ability to exercise choice and act according to context. The findings described below motivate my argument that community practitioners remain frustrated by assessment tools and practices despite their adaptations, particularly due to their inability to respond to the needs and risks they are assessing.

Composite Tools and Criminal Records

To reduce paperwork burden and expedite assessment, some service teams streamline their approach by combining questions from various tools. One respondent explains "our intake has been revised, and most of the questions from the OCAN and the LSI are now in the intake so we don’t have to burden the client with all of those other questions because they answer the questions straight away" (M01). Another reintegration worker explains:

We don’t want a set up that doesn’t recognize risk of re-offending. We are not going to put a sex offender in a basement apartment above a daycare. Not only for liability – and yes, we would be sued – but also because we don’t want to set up our guys to fail. A lot of our work focuses on relapse prevention, substance use and how it relates to re-offending (C06).

This shows how professionals assess needs and risks mixing public safety and liability concerns with a desire to help clients get through paperwork painlessly and end cycles of criminalization. When community service providers combine the LSI with other instruments to inform decisions not related to predicting recidivism, the tools as they were designed take on new purpose, like assessing eligibility for service. These hybrid assessments complement managerial justice practices, and “do not depend on punishing individual instances of lawbreaking, but rather on using the criminal process to sort and regulate populations targeted with these policing tactics over time” (Kohler-Hausmann, 2018). Assessments are then used to document who has (or has not) complied, improved, etc.

Compromising validity, community practitioners borrow content from assessments tools developed in other fields to collect information that will justify triage decisions, interventions or referrals to other professionals. I argue that by incorporating criminal histories, records, and elements from criminogenic risk tools into their client assessment practices, community service providers are importing highly problematic and pathologizing logics. These logics focus on minimizing recidivism, obscuring structural forces and social context factors, while enhancing potential for exclusion.

Assessments get used to evaluate risk, but practitioners also anticipate challenges and try to temper what they perceive to be punitive about tools and their use. Many interviewees expressed feelings akin to practitioners Goddard and Myers (2017) studied, characterizing risk-based assessments as ‘evidence-based oppression’. Some interviewees specifically criticized assessment tools for measuring risks of criminality, violence, recidivism and compliance, as perpetuating gender, class, heteronormative and race-based stereotypes and talked about deprioritizing their use whenever possible. Participants spoke at length about how assessments and records they generate can ‘seal the destiny of clients’, determining services they receive (and get refused), posing practical problems and triggering risk averse reactions in other agencies over time.

Some respondents worried about safety or liability, but they also expressed deep concern for their criminalized clients who get mischaracterized as dangerous for being disorderly, self-harming, or sexually inappropriate. This supports findings by Quinn (2019), who shows voluntary sector practitioners are cautious “interpreting the behaviors of criminalized women”, aware misinterpretation could (a) pathologize and shame service users, (b) interfere with effective support and (c) dismiss service users’ survival adaptations (12). Generally, practitioners talked about the necessity to nurture risk tolerance and offer flexible supports; in line with Evans (2015) call for developing risk intelligence, and Hardy’s (2015) claim that contemporary social work should and could resist risk aversion.

Adapting to a Difficult Process

Concerned with ‘forcing’ interventions (e.g. bringing someone in from sleeping outside, filling out forms for them, getting them formed for psychiatric assessment, getting them arrested so they don’t face greater harms), practitioners must carefully consider when to respect clients’ wishes and when to override them. This results in a various negotiation between the value of personal autonomy and individual rights, concerns for community safety, and legal frameworks for combining (legally mandated) care and control. It cannot be overstated how much practitioners disagree and struggle with this case-by-case negotiation. As Postle (2002) put it, frontline workers get caught between the functional demands of their work and the relationships they seek to build with clients. Respondents expressed concern with coerced consent in criminal justice, and many adopted negotiated consent practices, developing strategies to check back in often for permission while investing in trust relations, communication and relying on harm reduction, low barrier services and spaces like drop ins.

Interviewees explained the importance of trust building for positive interactions, successful interventions and accurate assessment. One caseworker describes why therapeutic rapport is essential in risk assessment and effective risk management:

I understand we’re wrapped up in risk culture, I get it, right? But people think our clients are unpredictable because ‘you never know’, ‘they could strike out at you’. I get it, but it’s all about how you work with clients, you know? You have to have therapeutic rapport and good relationship to understand triggers, right? When clients go off, there’s a reason (M24).

Practitioners are often compelled to skip or push back assessments, adapting to meet clients ‘where they are at’, mixing the informational with the relational. This is multipurpose strategy, as a well-maintained relationship help all parties and supports better outcomes.

Building relationships of trust to connect with clients is not always easy. Respondents described balancing ‘negative’ inquiry with ‘positive’ (less stigmatizing or personal) questions about goals and strengths. To build trusting relationships, some make it clear that while they collect criminal justice information (warrant for arrest), their consent to speak to probation is limited and one-directional. Practitioners also talked a lot about consideration for client moods, stress levels or state of mind. One harm reduction worker based in emergency shelters explains:

If a client walks in for the first time, they’ve just finished a four-day crack run, and I think there’s concurrent disorders or ABI, me producing an assessment form and a pen is going to freak them out. The most I do is take their name and date of birth. I’m going to listen to them, and it would probably be quite short, because they’re not going to be able to stay in the room long (T16).

Working with people who face multiple, acute and interconnected problems and forms of trauma and discrimination, interviewees stressed the importance of respect, patience, accessible non-judgmental language, and culturally appropriate approaches. Conversely, when clients are unable or unwilling to cooperate, assessments are also done covertly, with practitioners interpreting client needs as they best understand them.

Assessments are postponed or adapted when venues are not conducive to private and properly paced exchanges, showing the importance of discretion in context. For example, support workers are routinely pushed out of interview rooms by lawyers waiting to see clients, which requires them to reconnect with clients later in court or in the hallways without any privacy. Some assessments (like agency intake tools) can also be delayed because they too are stressful and invasive, requiring recall and engagement from clients. One case manager in a drug treatment program explains:

They have to come for intake straight away, but they also have to get their stuff from jail. Then they have to get back in time for curfew and straight to programming the following day. They’re hungry, they haven’t slept, there’s so much they want to do. I’ve got to juggle their head space, see if they’re able to do the intake... sometimes they’re just not able to at that moment. I’m not going to stress them out because they’d be pissed with me (C08).

Practitioners recognize people may not be willing to reveal personal details right away, and understand assessment can open up ‘old wounds’, explaining how it’s often better to just say: “we don’t have to talk about that today; we can address that down the road” (C01). Or, reassuring their clients that they won’t ask for their ‘whole story’. Conversely, practitioners spoke of clients who are ‘used to being assessed and to presenting crisis’ and who have been taught that if they ‘tell some ghastly story’, they will get what they need quicker (T16). In either case, building trust can mean adjusting both approach and pace. Service providers talked about manipulating the timing and method of administration for assessment tools. For example, some resist ‘tick box practice’ and fill out forms from memory after clients leave. Others avoid or delay using tools they do not value or find burdensome.

Even within the same agencies or programs, service providers do not always agree on assessment priorities or best practices. Illustrating these tensions, I observed an intake worker being scolded by their manager for not doing the required assessments for a client who had just been released from jail. They each spoke to me about it later. The manager was concerned with pressures to show outcomes to secure essential funding and sustain support for evidence-based interventions. The frontline staff felt this man would have been negatively affected by a formal assessment given his mood and stated priorities upon release. This moment illustrates how practitioners in the same team have competing understandings of what risks matter most (risk of not collecting data vs. risk of alienating a vulnerable client). With interdisciplinary work, practitioners must often choose to prioritize one aspect of clients’ needs or risks over others. For example, choosing to prioritize health outcomes by using jail as a place to impose assessment. Or conversely, choosing to prioritize legal rights, clear consent and freedom, at the expense of accessing ‘safe’ housing or other ‘good’ re-entry supports.

Practitioners negotiate with the punitive (importing from LSI, using police records etc.) and push for counter measures (adjusting tools, adapting to emotional needs, manipulating process and timing). In contrast some also discussed using remand to ‘stabilize’ and assess or diagnose people suffering from multiple interconnected issues like acquired brain injury, learning disabilities and mental illness. They do so despite the fact that local jails have been denounced for inhumane conditions, lockdowns, and lack of access to supports (Zinger, 2020). Lawyers and community practitioners can work in concert to delay bail release and let clients detox before they are assessed by court appointed psychiatrists or program gatekeepers. For instance, staff in court programs talk about having clients remanded to custody if they do not have enough time to do an interview to properly assess “triggers, risks, and patterns of offending behaviors to figure out what it is we could do” (C07). They explained how this practice reflects the extreme lack of options for respite care, transitional housing and residential rehabilitation in the community. Funded specialized assessments (e.g. FASD or ABI diagnosis) can be hard to access and can be limited to institutional clients (with screenings done at intake and discharge from local jails). Assessment requirements and cycles of detention and release contribute to re-entry systems that perpetuate marginality (Miller, 2014), punish before conviction (Pelvin, 2019), and set people up to fail (Sprott and Myers, 2011; Herring, Yarbrough and Alatorre, 2019).

There is much variation in how practitioners perceive and utilize assessment tools. Discretion flows from the fact that practitioners have to balance/negotiate multiple goals, and concerns that cut across multiple fields. Some practitioners have histories of clinical work in hospitals, psychiatric care, supervision work in police, courts, probation or corrections, while others were trained and influenced by work in activist, critical feminists, anti-racist, anti-oppressive and harm reduction programs. They have differing skills and resources that facilitate access to mental health, hospital, housing, and other types of networks.

Resource Gaps and Frontline Frustration

Respondents spoke about compensating for difficult assessments protocols and onerous conditions for service. They talked about their struggle to deal with lacking resources and years-long waitlists that collectively discourage, endanger trust and alienate people who need support the most. Solutions advanced include variations and combinations of: accepting ‘how it is’ in order to be more at peace in their work and/or finding ways to squeeze overburdened systems in the interests of their client. It also includes joining committees, collectives and demonstrations, writing op-ed pieces advocating for public awareness and change, pushing back to transform resources landscapes, funding allocations and frontline policies. Relatedly, Bell (2019), theorizes how members of marginalized communities can engage with police courts and corrections, in fluid (and contradictory) ways that highlight consumption and subjugation, but also resistance and transformation (See also, Quirouette, 2018; Tomczak and Thompson, 2019). Goodman, Page and Phelps (2017) also push for greater recognition of how actors “struggle to alter discourses, collective representations, practices and institutions” (140), and change how punishment takes shape locally.

Cultural and systemic changes do not happen easily. This sentiment was echoed time and time again by respondents who expressed limited hope for meaningful improvements. One (Black) service provider recounts talking with racialized clients about how the system views them: “honestly, your skin color is [viewed as] a risk, so I don’t know what to say to you” (M24). Acknowledging how it can be overwhelming to work in a racist and underfunded system, this worker explained it is essential to balance realistic expectations with a consistent practice of pushing back and advocating. Working with marginalized individuals with few resources, ‘the process becomes a punishment’ (Feeley, 1979; Kohler-Hausmann, 2018) and workers can be discouraged – “squeezed between the dis-organization of the systems they work in and the distressing nature of working with clients they notionally serve” (Scanlon and Adlam, 2012; 2) 11. Numerous interviewees also said they were careful when approaching ‘system’ level work. They explained that full time case work and client support are exhausting. And while important; reform, committee and advocacy work are too often unproductive or unpaid.

Participants talked about the importance of anti-oppressive low-barrier services and accessible spaces that minimize hurdles like assessment tools, paperwork and wait lists. For some clients, “we need places that don’t have complicated intake requirements and where people can still get supports” (T11). Low-barrier services that use little or no formal assessments do exist (e.g., drop-in day centers, out-of-the-cold shelters, outreach work), however this approach is mainly used for temporary (crisis) supports and food distribution (see Gong, 2019, about notion of ‘tolerant containment’). Low-barrier options are underfunded yet essential, especially for people described as ‘complex. Yet, when asked about what reform is most urgently needed, interviewees unanimously stressed need for safe, subsidized, accessible, supported and long-term housing. Other important mentions include decriminalization of drugs, homelessness and sex work. Such structural interventions could shift attention away from individual pathology, focusing instead on environments that can better meet people where they are at.


Assessment tools are fundamental for the work of frontline community services providers, shaping client relationships, access to supports and producing evidence for agencies that need to demonstrate outcomes and secure funding. They are shaped by notions of individualized needs and risks borrowed from justice, extending the reach of labels across fields of practice. Social service and criminal justice sector governance overlap, and marginalized individuals are cared for - but also controlled and punished - within these systems. Interviewees described assessments as punitive and some deplored how they are tainted by risk aversion and criminalizing language. Numerous influences guide community service practitioners in their use of assessment tools. These tools are combined and used cumulatively. They each have their individual purpose, but their cumulative use is significant as well, as a way of governing and labelling poor and marginalized people in conflict with the law. Assessment tools or labels from corrections matter for criminal justice but also for outside its formal boundaries, impacting frontline practices in the community. The collection and sharing of records and personal information is perceived by practitioners as common yet problematic, as it contributes to persistent surveillance, discipline and punishment of the poor.

Many factors shape practitioner perceptions (and use) of assessment tools, including practical challenges related to consent, trust, space and timing. These issues are important for understanding the process of using assessments in frontline work with criminalized clients. This account broadens existing knowledge of how practitioners negotiate the practical realities of doing assessments with marginalized clients who are in conflict with the law. It further illustrates how theses assessments produce evidence about problems occurring outside legal institutions while relying on criminal justice logics and engaging with criminal justice spaces and paces. Given the pathologizing nature of tools imported from justice, pressures to collect and share risk data, and the dearth of community supports, assessment practices create problems for people already dealing with a lot. This is frustrating for service providers because, as many of them expressed, assessing risks and identifying needs that are then not met is a punitive exercise of documentation. This is a particularly salient point as the government of Ontario has recently slashed legal aid, emergency housing, health and disability supports, and removed protections that used to prevent community housing from using police records to evict tenants. And of course, these issues even more pressing now that COVID-19 realities have strained support systems, and exacerbated barriers and human suffering. Future work should track exclusions, as eligibility criteria continue to narrow and wait lists grow during pandemic times.

Risk-led service delivery has been studied in many fields, and my analysis contributes by showing how stakeholders from multiple community agencies govern people caught in the revolving doors of emergency shelters, hospitals, jails and the streets. It extends previous work on discretion, showing that actuarial and clinical tools from different fields of practice are merged or adapted. Findings support the theory that while practitioners are affected by actuarial or managerial pressures, they find ways to temper punitive elements for clients, adapting standardized risk tools and assessment practices. Future research should confirm how, when and to what effect service providers embrace or resist using tools and information from justice. It would be useful to understand how ‘low-barrier’ service providers handle pressures to produce and share evidence about individual clients in order to get funding. It is also essential to understand impacts of assessment tools/practices on client perceptions, and on service referrals or outcomes, particularly with access to housing. Despite important negotiation efforts from practitioners, my analysis suggests that with assessment for social supports outside criminal justice, the process is too often part of a larger punishment.


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