The classification of sex offenders based on the risks they pose to the community following their release from prison is subject to racial bias, according to a study published in the Criminal Justice Policy Review.
African-American sex offenders were found to be two-and a half times likelier to be inaccurately designated as high-risk than their Caucasian counterparts by a state-sponsored risk-assessment instrument, said the study, which was based on a sample of 673 sex offenders in the state of Ohio who were convicted of a sex crime and released between 2009 and 2011.
Risk assessments that were overly weighted towards prior criminal records led to the skewed assessments, argued the authors, Bobbie Ticknor of Valdosta State University, and Jessica J. Warner of Miami University Regionals.
“Approximately 85 percent of the individuals classified in the highest tier, who theoretically posed the greatest danger, did not have a conviction for a new sex offense after the five-year follow up period,” the study found, adding that 15 percent of “Tier 1” offenders were under-classified, meaning their threat-level was underestimated.
The sample was limited to offenders who had received a classification under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) system established by the 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.
The law established guidelines aimed at protecing communities from convicted sex offenders who might pose continued threats to their community following release. SORNA is an offense-based classification system where offenders are assigned to one of three tiers according to “dangerousness.” Tier designation is determined by prior offenses and the severity of the charge and conviction.
The classification is used to determine the level of supervision convicted sex offenders will be subject to following release, ranging from regular monitoring by local law enforcement to restrictions on where they can live. Some version of these federally mandated laws now exist in every state.
The authors said their study results should “generate several concerns from policymakers.”
“There is a small group of sex offenders who are more dangerous than their tier designation would lead society to believe,” they wrote. “In addition there is a much larger portion of therse individuals who may not be as dangerous as previously thought.”
The reason why racial bias may influence the accuracy of SORNA designations lies in the fact that SORNA relies heavily on the criminal history of an individual, said the authors.
The study cites prior research which produced evidence that “black defendants are less likely to accept a plea deal due to mistrust in the system…”
Going to trial increases the chances of being found guilty of more severe charges and receiving lengthier sentences, especially for minority defendants, according to the authors.
Over-classification may lead to measures, such as residency restrictions, which could induce a chain-reaction of negative outcomes increasing the chances of recidivism. A potential solution, suggest the authors, would be a state by state re-evaluation of the law, and a move to incorporate considerations of background information, criminogenic needs, and protective factors into risk-assessment instruments.
The full Ohio study can be found here:
This summary was prepared by TCR news intern John Ramsey. Readers’ comments are welcome.