How Race Distorts Risk Assessment for Minority Youth

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When Oliver Washington became head of the Edgecombe County Detention Center, in Tarboro, N.C., last July, he pledged that tackling recidivism—particularly among younger inmates— would be one of his top priorities.

“I always tell these young guys you have something to offer to the community when you leave here,” Capt. Washington, a 30-year veteran of the state’s penal system, said in an interview published in  the Rocky Mount (NC) Telegram..

While his priorities are right, the challenge for him and for others on the front lines of the justice system may be more complex than they imagine.

One of the primary ways that court and prison officials use to address and predict recidivism is through risk assessment tools, which analyze the key factors and data points from an offender’s background that are believed to make an impact on the likelihood of reoffending, according to the Congressional Research Service.

These factors can include, for example, anti-social behavior, anti-social peer relationships, problems in school, and involvement in substance abuse.

But addressing recidivism also requires understanding the role that race plays in accurately predicting who is at risk to reoffend.

And that is especially important in the case of youth offenders, for whom accuracy in the use of risk assessments is critical to determining whether they can avoid becoming ensnared in a cycle of criminal justice involvement as an adult, according to the New York Times.

One decision that juvenile courts frequently face when assessing an offending youth is whether that juvenile should be diverted through dismissal or into service learning programs, mental health treatment or advocacy/mentoring programs, especially when he or she has been arrested for relatively minor offenses.

The specific interaction of race and criminogenic risk, however, is rarely addressed with juvenile offenders.

Recent research conducted by myself and colleagues at the University of Cincinnati School of Criminal Justice, titled “Risk Assessment: An Interaction Between Risk, Race and Gender” showed that relationship between risk score and recidivism differed significantly for African-American and white youth, with the scores significantly less predicative for black juveniles.

Although a commonly used risk assessment instrument significantly predicted recidivism for all youth in the study, the risk-recidivism interaction was even more present for males and ethnic minorities.

More specifically, while there were no differences in the types of crimes committed and no difference in the proportion of low, moderate and high-risk African-American and white youth in the study, black males were more likely to receive a new court petition following their initial involvement with the juvenile court, compared to their white counterparts.

This means that there were factors beyond criminogenic risks as measured by risk assessment tools that led to recidivism. And it was the implementation of a risk assessment tool that allowed researchers to uncover this disparity.

These findings are not new, nor are they unique to the United States.

New Zealand’s Strategy

New Zealand faced a similar disproportionality problem regarding race and recidivism. In the 1980s, members of the country’s indigenous Maori population were six times more likely to enter the criminal justice system than whites, according to the Pacific Standard.

New Zealand also had difficulties with reducing repeat offending, despite an increased economic investment in prison resources, according to a March 2018 research paper “Using Evidence to Build a Better Justice System” by Prof. Sir Peter Gluckman, chief science advisor in the office of the New Zealand Prime Minister.

However, one promising step New Zealand has made involves focusing on the potential impact of delinquency prevention. Early intervention programs were more cost-effective than prisons and helped lower their recidivism rate.

Both the New Zealand examples and the findings from our study should inform U.S. practice and policies concerning issues of disproportionality in three primary ways:

1. Pay Attention to Sentencing Decisions that Exacerbate Risk

Court practitioners, like juvenile court officers and judges, should pay special attention to sentencing decisions that exacerbate criminogenic risk and increase adherence to treatment and program success.

Since risk assessment can provide an overview of responsivity, learning styles, personality, strengths, and motivations of the offender that promote program success, there are great opportunities to better match youth with appropriate services and treatment.

2. Leverage Risk Assessment Tools to Check for Bias

There’s an opportunity to leverage the use of risk assessment to evaluate implicit and explicit biased practices and procedures.  For example, court officers and service providers should implement policies that require tracking how risk assessment information is used in the decision-making process.

This can include placing a stronger emphasis on the need to document dosage and severity of programming, supervision level, sentence type, and length of juvenile dispositions.

3. Monitor Changes in Risk

 The use of reassessments to monitor changes in dynamic criminogenic risk is necessary. As society evolves, so will the issues that face individuals involved in the criminal justice system, and reassessments will help address racial disparities in the criminal justice process.

While these solutions could greatly help lesser recidivism and inequalities among minority offenders, there are forces that have stopped them from being immediately implemented.

Convincing court officials to adopt these new and strength-based approaches to reducing criminogenic risk is a timely procedure. Plus, offenders involved in corrections often face environmental risks like limited resources and poor social/economic conditions, requiring more questions to be asked about how environment plays into the reduction of recidivism.

Not implementing these solutions could cause more damage in the long run. Failing to acknowledge or address the potential gaps in recidivism among minorities will only perpetuate problems and violate human rights.

New Zealand’s example shows that the use of strength-based approaches like restorative justice programs and diversion are both economically beneficial and help out society in the long run vs. investing more money in residential facilities and prisons.

Christina Campbell

Christina Campbell

These types of approaches are just a few alternatives to decreasing court involvement that place less emphasis on the punishment and the use of courts, and more emphasis on building healthy youth and communities.

Christina A. Campbell, Ph.D.is a professor at The University of Cincinnati’s Online Master of Science in Criminal Justice. Her primary research interests include delinquency prevention, risk assessment, juvenile justice policy, and neighborhood ecology. She welcomes comments from readers.