Holder Opposes Using Risk Assessments In Sentencing, Fearing Racial Impact


Citing concerns about equal justice in sentencing, Attorney General Eric Holder is opposing certain statistical tools used in determining prison time, putting the Obama Administration at odds with a popular method for managing prison populations, reports Time. Holder will call for a review of the issue in his annual report to the U.S. Sentencing Commission today. States have used databases of information about criminals to identify dozens of risk factors associated with those who continue to commit crimes, like prior convictions, hostility to law enforcement and substance abuse. Those factors are then weighted and used to rank criminals as being a high, medium or low risk to offend again. Judges, corrections officials and parole officers can use those data to help determine how long a convict should spend behind bars. Holder says if such rankings are used broadly, they could have a disparate and adverse impact on the poor, on socially disadvantaged offenders, and on minorities.

“I'm really concerned that this could lead us back to a place we don't want to go,” he said. Virtually every state has used such risk assessments to varying degrees over the past decade, and many have made them mandatory for sentencing and corrections as a way to reduce prison populations, cut recidivism and save money. The federal government has yet to require them for the more than 200,000 inmates in its prisons. Bipartisan legislation requiring risk assessments is pending in Congress. Using information like educational levels and employment history in sentencing, Holder said, will benefit “those on the white collar side who may have advanced degrees and who may have done greater societal harm…than somebody who has not completed a master's degree, doesn't have a law degree, is not a doctor.” Supporters of the broad use of data in criminal-justice reform say Holder's approach won't work. “If you wait until the back end, it becomes exponentially harder to solve the problem,” says former New Jersey attorney general Anne Milgram, now at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

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