Risk is everywhere in contemporary social science, although its precise meaning is far from clear. David Garland (2003) points out that risk is used to describe both the idea of threat or insecurity as well as the idea of pleasure and thrill-seeking; it refers to what is objectively real and scientifically measurable and what is subjectively felt and socially constructed; it refers to a governmental strategy or technique and an uncertain global context to which governments must respond. Criminologists must grapple with all of these meanings simultaneously, but there are two elements of the idea of risk that are of particular interest. The first is the widespread use of the term ‘risk’ in criminal justice
practice and research – this is the ‘actuarial’ use of risk as a (supposedly) objective measure or indicator of the likelihood of criminal victimisation. This actuarial use is to be found in the effort to discover what factors in an individual’s life correlate with offending behaviour and, in particular, with those factors that lead to the onset or aggravation of such behaviour. For example, in the Home Office study on gender differences in risk factors for offending, Farrington and Painter (2004) point to low family income, large family size, nervous and/or poorly educated fathers and mothers, harsh or erratic parental discipline and low social class, among an extensive list of potential triggers to offending lifestyles. The idea of risk is also firmly embedded in the operations of criminal justice agencies themselves. For example, probation service practitioners are required to demonstrate competence in the use of OASys (Offender Assessment System), SRA (Structured Risk Assessment) and RPM (Risk Prediction Monitoring) as well as Risk Matrix 2000 and the use of Acute Risk Checklists (Probation Circular, 2005). Practitioners are also required to familiarise themselves with the RAG (Red, Amber, Green) code for allocating risk scores to potential sex offenders. According to Reiner (2006) the essence of these risk-based approaches ‘is usually seen as their instrumentalism, replacing attribution of blame, rehabilitating offenders or meting out retributive justice with pragmatic, business-like calculations of what works in terms of cost-effective harm reduction’. In these cases, criminal justice interventions are based on risk scores or risk factor correlations rather than on the judgement of the practitioner or the moral personhood of the (actual or potential) offender (see Wandall, 2006). Beyond these technical senses of the term there are wider issues
about the extent to which ‘risk’ has become much more than part of
the specialised language of protected professional approaches to crime and justice. In Loader and Sparks’ (2002: 93) words, ‘risk ‘‘seeps out’’ from such protected spaces to become part of the very idiom of our contemporary moral and political conversations’. In this second sense, risk has become a key element in the governance of contemporary societies insofar as it involves ‘bringing possible future undesired events into calculations in the present, making their avoidance the central object of decision-making processes, and administering individuals, institutions, expertise and resources in the service of that ambition’ (Rose, 2000: 332). This ambition is clearly articulated in the risk factor analysis referred to above and is a clear goal of developmental criminology. On a planetary scale, the same kind of ambition is visible in the debate currently raging about the impacts of global climate change and the means that must be adopted now to forestall the worst of the future risks that it heralds. In this regard, it has been claimed that we live in a ‘risk society’ (Beck, 1992) where the object of governance is not to cut up the cake of progress and distribute its goods but to manage the ‘bads’ that progress has delivered and prevent their unregulated escalation. In Barbara Hudson’s (2003a: 46) pithily astute words, ‘though risks might not be able to be eliminated, they can be kept within reasonable levels’. Thus, in criminal justice as in climate change, the language of ‘risk’ is said to signal an ambition to regulate rather than eliminate the problems that modern society has itself created.