Sunday, January 12, 2014

Putting the Cart Before the Horse: The Forensic Application of the SRA-FV

As the developers of actuarial instruments such as the Static-99R acknowledge that their original norms inflated the risk of re-offense for sex offenders, a brand-new method is cropping up to preserve those inflated risk estimates in sexually violent predator civil commitment trials. The method introduces a new instrument, the “SRA-FV,” in order to bootstrap special “high-risk” norms on the Static-99R. Curious about the scientific support for this novel approach, I asked forensic psychologist and statistics expert Brian Abbott to weigh in.

Guest post by Brian Abbott, PhD*

NEWS FLASH: Results from the first peer-reviewed study about the Structured Risk Assessment: Forensic Version (“SRA-FV”), published in Sexual Abuse: Journal of Research and Treatment (“SAJRT”), demonstrate the instrument is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

Promotional material for an SRA-FV training
For the past three years, the SRA-FV developer has promoted the instrument for clinical and forensic use despite the absence of peer-reviewed, published research supporting it validity, reliability, and generalizability. Accordingly, some clinicians who have attended SRA-FV trainings around the country routinely apply the SRA-FV in sexually violent predator risk assessments and testify about its results in court as if the instrument has been proven to measure what it intends to assess, has known error rates, retains validity when applied to other groups of sexual offenders, and produces trustworthy results.

Illustrating this rush to acceptance most starkly, within just three months of its informal release (February 2011) and with an absence of any peer-reviewed research, the state of California incredibly decided to adopt the SRA-FV as its statewide mandated dynamic risk measure for assessing sexual offenders in the criminal justice system. This decision was rescinded in September 2013, with the SRA-FV replaced with a similar instrument, the Stable-2007.

The SRA-FV consists of 10 items that purportedly measure “long-term vulnerabilities” associated with sexual recidivism risk. The items are distributed among three risk domains and are assessed using either standardized rating criteria devised by the developer or by scoring certain items on the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). Scores on the SRA-FV range from zero to six. Some examples of the items from the instrument include: sexual interest in children, lack of emotionally intimate relationships with adults, callousness, and internal grievance thinking. Patients from the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, Massachusetts who were evaluated as sexually dangerous persons between 1959 and 1984 served as members of the SRA-FV construction group (unknown number) and validation sample (N = 418). It was released for use by Dr. David Thornton, a co-developer of the Static-99R, Static-2002R, and SRA-FV and research director at the SVP treatment program in Wisconsin, in December 2010 during training held in Atascadero, California. Since then, Dr. Thornton has held similar trainings around the nation where he asserts that the SRA-FV is valid for predicting sexual recidivism risk, achieves incremental validity over the Static-99R, and can be used to choose among Static-99R reference groups.

A primary focus of the trainings is a novel system in which the total score on the SRA-FV is used to select one Static-99R “reference group” among three available options. The developer describes the statistical modeling underlying this procedure, which he claims increases predictive validity and power over using the Static-99R alone. However, reliability data is not offered to support this claim. In the December 2010 training, several colleagues and I asked for the inter-rater agreement rate but Dr. Thornton refused to provide it.

I was astounded but not surprised when some government evaluators in California started to apply the SRA-FV in sexually violent predator risk assessments within 30 days after the December 2010 training. This trend blossomed in other jurisdictions with sexually violent predator civil confinement laws. Typically, government evaluators applied the SRA-FV to select Static-99R reference groups, invariably choosing to compare offenders with the “High Risk High Needs” sample with the highest re-offense rates. A minority of clinicians stated in reports and court testimony that the SRA-FV increased predictive accuracy over the Static-99R alone but they were unable to quantify this effect. The same clinicians have argued that the pending publication of the Thornton and Knight study was sufficient to justify its use in civil confinement risk assessments for sexually violent predators. They appeared to imply that the mere fact that a construction and validation study had been accepted for publication was an imprimatur that the instrument was reliable and valid for its intended purposes. Now that the research has been peer-reviewed and published, the results reflect that these government evaluators apparently put the proverbial cart before the horse.

David Thornton and Raymond Knight penned an article that documents the construction and validation of the SRA-FV. The publication is a step in the right direction, but by no means do the results justify widespread application of the SRA-FV in sexual offender risk assessment in general or sexually violent predator proceedings in particular. Rather, the results of the study only apply to the group upon which the research was conducted and do not generalize to other groups of sexual offenders. Before discussing the limitations of the research, I would like to point out some encouraging results.

The SRA-FV did, as its developer claimed, account for more sources of sexual recidivism risk than the Static-99R alone. However, it remains unknown which of the SRA-FV’s ten items contribute to risk prediction. The study also found that the combination of the Static-99R and SRA-FV increased predictive power. This improved predictive accuracy, however, must be replicated to determine whether the combination of the two instruments will perform similarly in other groups of sexual offenders. This is especially important when considering that the SRA-FV was constructed and validated on individuals from the Bridgewater sample from Massachusetts who are not representative of contemporary groups of sexual offenders. Thornton and Knight concede this point when discussing how the management of sexual offenders through all levels of the criminal justice system in Massachusetts between 1959 and 1984 was remarkably lenient compared to contemporary times. Such historical artifacts likely compromise any reliable generalization from patients at Bridgewater to present-day sexual offenders.

Training materials presented four months before
State of California rescinded use of the SRA-FV

Probably the most crucial finding from the study is the SRA-FV’s poor inter-rater reliability. The authors categorize the 64 percent rate of agreement as “fair.” It is well known that inter-rater agreement in research studies is typically higher than in real-world applications. This has been addressed previously in this blog in regard to the PCL-R. A field reliability study of the SRA-FV among 19 government psychologists rating 69 sexually violent predators in Wisconsin (Sachsenmaier, Thornton, & Olson, 2011) found an inter-rater agreement rate of only 55 percent for the SRA-FV total score, which is considered as poor reliability. These data illustrate that 36 percent to 45 percent of an SRA-FV score constitutes error, raising serious concerns over the trustworthiness of the instrument. To their credit, Thornton and Knight acknowledge this as an issue and note that steps should be taken to increase reliable scoring. Nonetheless, the current inter-rater reliability falls far short of the 80 percent floor recommended for forensic practice (Heilbrun, 1992). Unless steps are taken to dramatically improve reliability, the claims that the SRA-FV increases predictive accuracy either alone or in combination with the Static-99R, and that it should be used to select Static-99R reference groups, are moot.

It is also important to note that, although Thornton and Knight confuse the terms validation and cross validation in their article, this study represents a validation methodology. Cross-validation is a process by which the statistical properties found in a validation sample (such as reliability, validity, and item correlations) are tested in a separate group to see whether they hold up. In contrast, Thornton and Knight first considered the available research data from a small number of individuals from the Bridgewater group to determine what items would be included in the SRA-FV. This group is referred to as the construction sample. The statistical properties of the newly conceived measure were studied on 418 Bridgewater patients who constitute the validation sample. The psychometric properties of the validation group have not been tested on other contemporary sexual offender groups. Absent such cross-validation studies, we simply have no confidence that the SRA-FV works at it has been designed for groups other than the sample upon which it was validated. To their credit, Thornton and Knight acknowledge this limitation and warn readers not to generalize the validation research to contemporary groups of sexual offenders.

The data on incremental predictive validity, while interesting, have little practical value at this point for two reasons. One, it is unknown whether the results will replicate in contemporary groups of sexual offenders. Two, no data are provided to quantify the increased predictive power. The study does not provide an experience table of probability estimates at each score on the Static-99R after taking into account the effect of the SRA-FV scores. It seems disingenuous, if not misleading, to inform the trier of fact that the combined measures increase predictive power but to fail to quantify the result and the associated error rate.

In my practice, I have seen the SRA-FV used most often to select among three Static-99R reference groups. Invariably, government evaluators in sexually violent predator risk assessments assign SRA-FV total scores consistent with the selection of the Static-99R High Risk High Needs reference group. Only the risk estimates associated with the highest Static-99R scores in this reference group are sufficient to support an opinion that an individual meets the statutory level of sexual dangerousness necessary to justify civil confinement. Government evaluators who have used the SRA-FV for this purpose cannot cite research demonstrating that the procedure works as intended or that it produces a reliable match to the group representing the individual being assessed. Unfortunately, Thornton and Knight are silent on this application of the SRA-FV.

In a recently published article, I tested the use of the SRA-FV for selecting Static-99R reference groups. In brief, Dr. Thornton used statistical modeling based solely on data from the Bridgewater sample to devise this model. The reference group selection method was not based on the actual scores of members from each of the three reference groups. Rather, it was hypothetical, presuming that members of a Static-99R reference group will exhibit a certain range of SRA-FV score that do not overlap with any of the other two reference groups. To the contrary, I found that the hypothetical SRA-FV reference group system did not work as designed, as the SRA-FV scores between reference groups overlapped by wide margins. In other words, the SRA-FV total score would likely be consistent with selecting two if not all three Static-99R reference groups. In light of these findings, it is incumbent upon the developer to provide research using actual subjects to prove that the SRA-FV total score is a valid method by which to select a single Static-99R reference group and that the procedure can be applied reliably. At this point, credible support does not exist for using the SRA-FV to select Static-99R reference groups.

The design, development, validation, and replication of psychological instruments is guided by the Standard for Educational and Psychological Testing (“SEPT” -- American Educational Research Association et al., 1999). When comparing the Thornton and Knight study to the framework provided by SEPT, it is apparent the SRA-FV is in the infancy stage of development. At best, the SRA-FV is a work in progress that needs substantially more research to improve its psychometric properties. Aside from its low reliability and inability to generalize the validation research to other groups of sexual offenders, other important statistical properties await examination, including but not limited to:

  1. standard error of measurement
  2. factor analysis of whether items within each of the three risk domains significantly load in their respective domains
  3. the extent of the correlation between each SRA-FV item and sexual recidivism
  4. which SRA-FV items add incremental validity beyond the Static-99R or may be redundant with it; and proving each item has construct validity. 

It is reasonable to conclude that at its current stage of development the use of the SRA-FV in forensic proceedings is premature and scientifically indefensible. In closing , in their eagerness to improve the accuracy of their risk assessments, clinicians relied upon Dr. Thornton’s claim in the absence of peer-reviewed research demonstrating that the SRA-FV achieved generally accepted levels of reliability and validity. The history of forensic evaluators deploying the SRA-FV before the publication of the construction and validation study raises significant ethical and legal questions:

  • Should clinicians be accountable to vet the research presented in trainings by an instrument’s developer before applying a tool in forensic practice? 

  • What responsibility do clinicians have to rectify testimony where they presented the SRA-FV as if the results were reliable and valid?

  •  How many individuals have been civilly committed as sexually violent predators based on testimony that the findings from the SRA-FV were consistent with individuals meeting the legal threshold for sexual dangerousness, when the published data does not support this conclusion?

Answers to these questions and others go beyond the scope of this blog. However, in a recent appellate decision, a Washington Appeals Court questions the admissibility of the SRA-FV in the civil confinement trial of Steven Ritter. The appellate court determined that the application of the SRA-FV was critical to the government evaluator’s opinion that Mr. Ritter met the statutory threshold for sexual dangerousness. Since the SRA-FV is considered a novel scientific procedure, the appeals court reasoned that the trial court erred by not holding a defense-requested evidentiary hearing to decide whether the SRA-FV was admissible evidence for the jury to hear. The appeals court remanded the issue to the trial court to hold a Kelly-Frye hearing on the SRA-FV. Stay tuned!


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.

American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association and National Council on Measurement in Education. (1999). Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Heilbrun, K. (1992). The role of psychological testing in forensic assessment. Law and Human Behavior, 16, 257-272. doi: 10.1007/BF01044769.

In Re the Detention of Steven Ritter. (2013, November). In the Appeals Court of the State of Washington, Division III. 

Sachsenmaier, S., Thornton, D., & Olson, G. (2011, November). Structured risk assessment forensic version (SRA-FV): Score distribution, inter-rater reliability, and margin of error in an SVP population. Presentation at the 30th Annual Research and Treatment Conference of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, Toronto, Canada.

Thornton, D. & Knight, R.A. (2013). Construction and validation of the SRA-FV Need Assessment. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. Published online December 30, 2013. doi: 10.1177/ 1079063213511120. 
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*Brian R. Abbott is licensed psychologist in California and Washington who has evaluated and treated sexual offenders for more than 35 years. Among his areas of forensic expertise, Dr. Abbott has worked with sexually violent predators in various jurisdictions within the United States, where he performs psychological examinations, trains professionals, consults on psychological and legal issues, offers expert testimony, and publishes papers and peer-reviewed articles.

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