Communicating violence risk during testimony: Do different formats lead to different perceptions among jurors?

The legal system often charges forensic clinicians with the task of assisting the court in making decisions about a defendant’s risk for violence. The extent to which these evaluations are useful depends, in part, on how the results are communicated to and understood by the trier of fact. Using a sample of 155 participants who previously served as a criminal trial juror, this study examined the effects of various risk communication formats on participants’ perceptions of a hypothetical defendant’s risk level, including his likelihood of reoffense and risk category, as well as sentencing and release decisions. Results consistently showed that when risk data was not anchored by an absolute recidivism estimate, predictions of future violence were highest. That is, when risk was stated only as an ordinal category (medium risk) or only in terms of needed interventions, participants severely overestimated the defendant’s likelihood of violence. In the context of numerical data, the use of elaborative strategies (i.e., base rate examples and visual aids) did not impact risk perceptions. However, no between-groups differences were found across participants’ decisions regarding sentencing and community release. Overall, participants tended to adhere to the expert’s opinion when judging risk. Implications for best practices and future research are discussed, including the need for experts to simplify information during testimony and for risk researchers to work toward a better understanding of which strategies impact layperson perceptions of risk testimony and under what conditions. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved)