Risk-evaluation tools have emerged as a centerpiece of efforts to reduce the U.S. inmate population, which jumped from around 200,000 in the early 1970s to over 2 million now, reports the Wall Street Journal. Many parole boards now weigh risk scores when considering early release, and prison officials use them to determine the level of security for offenders. The adoption of such tools has prompted a debate over which factors are acceptable. Attributes such as age or sex, which employers are generally forbidden from including in hiring decisions, are considered by criminal-justice experts to be strong predictors of whether an offender is likely to commit another crime.
The measures vary but are based on an offender’s criminal history and, in addition to age and sex, may include marital status, employment and education, says University of Michigan law Prof. Sonja Starr. Pennsylvania is building a test that weighs the nature of the offense, criminal history, age, sex and county of residence. The last factor is controversial as it could be considered a proxy for socioeconomic status. Missouri takes into account current offense and criminal history, age, whether the offender has a history of substance abuse, education level and employment. Judges aren’t bound by the evaluations, but there is evidence they are taking them into account. The efforts have drawn skepticism from Attorney General Eric Holder, who says basing sentencing on factors such as a defendant’s education level “may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities.”