More states are using risk assessment tools to help drive down prison populations, the Associated Press reports. The tools are questionnaires that explore issues beyond criminal history, based on surveys of offenders making their way through the justice system. The idea is to use data about past offenders to predict what current defendants with similar backgrounds might do when released from prison. The AP reports “significant problems with the surveys, which are used inconsistently across the U.S.” Supporters cite research like a 1987 Rand Corp. study that said the surveys can be up to 70 percent accurate in predicting the likelihood of repeat offenses. The Rand study was skeptical of the surveys’ effectiveness.
The AP says it is nearly impossible to measure the surveys’ impact on recidivism because they are part of broader efforts. Many surveys rely on criminals to tell the truth, though jurisdictions do not always make sure the answers are accurate. The surveys are clouded in secrecy. Some have the potential to punish people for being poor or uneducated by attaching a lower risk to those with steady work and high levels of education. Adam Gelb of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project defends the use of risk assessments, saying they are “a vast improvement over the decision-making process of 20, 30 years ago when parole boards and the courts didn’t have any statistical information to base their decisions on.”