May 10, 2021

What is meant by the term “objective screening instrument” in PREA Standard 115.41?


PREA Standard 115.41 requires facilities to assess all inmates “for their risk of being sexually abused by other inmates or sexually abusive toward other inmates” and such assessments shall be conducted using an objective screening instrument.” (emphasis added).

The Department made clear in the PREA Notice of Final Rule that the “standard provides that the agency shall attempt to ascertain specific information about the [resident, inmate, or detainee] and that the agency develop an objective, rather than subjective, process for using that information…” See 77 Fed. Reg. 37106, 37154 (June 20, 2012) (emphasis added). Objective screening instruments have been used in corrections and other disciplines for decades in order to create uniformity, accuracy, and transparency in internal decision-making processes.1 Such instruments lead to a presumptive determination of risk, and are “point-additive,” “decision-tree,” or “software-based algorithm.” 

While a PREA-compliant objective screening instrument must consider various enumerated factors, the Department of Justice made clear that the standards do not “mandate the weight to be assigned to any of the enumerated factors in making placement and classification decisions.” See 77 Fed. Reg. 37106, 37154 (June 20, 2012). The standards require the following factors to be included in the objective risk-screening determinations for risk of victimization:  (1) Whether the inmate has a mental, physical, or developmental disability; (2) The age of the inmate; (3) The physical build of the inmate; (4) Whether the inmate has previously been incarcerated; (5) Whether the inmate’s criminal history is exclusively nonviolent; (6) Whether the inmate has prior convictions for sex offenses against an adult or child; (7) Whether the inmate is or is perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or gender nonconforming; (8) Whether the inmate has previously experienced sexual victimization; (9) The inmate’s own perception of vulnerability; and (10) Whether the inmate is detained solely for civil immigration purposes. See 28 C.F.R. § 115.41(d).

In addition, an objective screening instrument must consider: “prior acts of sexual abuse, prior convictions for violent offenses, and history of prior institutional violence or sexual abuse, as known to the agency, in assessing inmates for risk of being sexually abusive.” See 28 C.F.R. § 115.41(e).  

Additional Considerations for PREA-Compliant Objective Screening Instruments 

Objective screening instruments are “rules-based” and include the following essential features:

  1. Developing and implementing a uniform list of risk factors and assigning reasonable weights for each risk factor based on available evidence and reasonably informed assumptions.2  
  2. Assigning objective outcome thresholds based on the totality of weighted risk factors (weighted inputs lead to presumptive outcome determinations). 
  3. Using a uniform process to obtain information on the applicability of each risk factor to individual inmates.
  4. Making an objective risk determination based on the aggregate of the inmate’s individual weighted risk factors.3   

Agencies may include additional relevant factors in their screening instrument(s) based on the availability of additional known risk factors as they become available. For example, additional risk factors may be identified based on agency- and facility-specific sexual abuse incident data. The Bureau of Justice Statistics also publishes data on individual-level characteristics associated with a heightened risk of victimization that an agency may use to identify additional risk factors or inform the weight to be assigned to individual risk factors. Agencies may use one screening instrument to assess both risk of sexual abusiveness and victimization or use separate instruments. It is important to know that an inmate may be both at heightened risk of victimization and abusiveness. 

While objective screening instruments are designed to arrive at an objectively presumptive outcome, an agency may override the presumptive outcome based on unusual or unanticipated circumstances. However, override determinations are often subjective and should be limited. Overrides greater than 15-20 percent may transform an objective system into a largely subjective system. In cases where agencies override a large percentage of objective determinations, the agency should consider reassessing their screening instrument and individual factor weightings to accommodate the reasons many determinations are being overturned.

Agencies should attempt to tailor their objective screening instruments to the unique characteristics (e.g., specialized populations, inmate demographics, program type) of their various facility types. For example, the factor weighting appropriate for a minimum-security prison may create considerable over-screening in a sex-offender treatment facility. Similarly, agencies should also periodically reassess their screening instrument over time, as the nature of their facility populations may shift. The goal of an objective classification system is to, in an any given confined population, identify the most vulnerable and most predatory inmates, and keep those inmates separate. See 28 C.F.R. § 115.42(a). If an objective screening instrument identifies 100 percent or zero percent of a population as vulnerable; or conversely predatory; the system may not accomplish this goal.

1 See, e.g., James Austin, Ph.D., Objective Jail Classification Systems, National Institute of Corrections (Feb. 1998); Jack Alexander Ph.D., Handbook for Evaluating Objective Prison Classification Systems, National Institute of Corrections (June 1992); David Steinhart, Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, Annie E. Casey Foundation (2006);; Keith Cooprider, Pretrial Risk Assessment and Case Classification: A Case Study Control, Federal probation Journal (Vol. 73, No. 1) (“the practice of objective risk assessment is a basic principle of the Evidence-Based Practice (EBP) initiative…”).  

The Bureau of Justice Statistics periodically publishes PREA-related data collection reports, among other things, identifying victim-characteristic correlation to victimization:

“Validation” is another positive, yet costly, feature of an objective system.  The Department chose not to include a validation requirement in its standards. See e.g., 77 Fed. Reg. 37106, 37151 (June 20, 2012);