Why Judges Should Be Wary of Risk Assessment Tools

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Judges, police and prosecutors should be wary of using risk assessment tools to address criminal behavior at the “front end” of the justice system, according to a new study in Law and Human Behavior.

Algorithms developed to help guide decisions on parole and probation are increasingly seen as a key component of criminal justice reform because they can tailor supervision and treatment to individuals’ level of criminogenic risk, and have led many authorities to apply them to decisions made during the pretrial and sentencing phase.

But they are inappropriate guides to helping individuals desist from criminal behavior in the first place, wrote the study author, Seth J. Prins, an assistant professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

They are especially misleading when they are applied to sentencing and bail decisions, because they ignore the impact of “social, economic and policy-related factors” that put people at risk for offending, he wrote.

Prins, echoing widespread criticism of risk assessment tools for their implicit bias, criticized what he called the “uncritical expansion” of the tools as guidelines used by police and prosecutors for determining whether individuals who come into contact with the justice system are at risk for committing future criminal acts.

“The use of criminogenic risk assessment is expanding from the back-end of the criminal justice system to the front, in pretrial processing, sentencing and even policing,” he wrote.

Calling this expansion of the tools a “potential overreach,” he claimed that it led to legal and correctional professionals and policymakers “mistaking probabilities for administrative certainties.”

Basing his analysis on a study of 503 boys from Pittsburgh public schools who were surveyed periodically between the ages of 7 and 28 during the 1980s, Prins concluded that their repeated exposure to the justice system—through contact with police, juvenile authorities, and peers—contributed to their antisocial behavior and made them more likely to be offenders.

But tools designed for decisions about community supervision—to determine whether an individual was likely to recidivate after being convicted or after serving a sentence— were too blunt to be of much help in addressing the problems that produced their antisocial behavior, he wrote.

“If exposure to the criminal justice system increases the very risk factors used to predict recidivism or future criminal activity, intervening on these risk factors will not reduce overall levels of criminal justice system involvement unless we also reduce the absolute number of people (exposed to that risk),” he wrote.

The surveys revealed that over time many of the youths developed a sense of cynicism and fatalism about their futures as a result of repeated contact with police and exposure to other youths that accelerated their anti-social behavior as they got older.

The surveys made clear that “crime can be both a specific action behavior and a social process,” he wrote.

Prins concluded that crime prevention should be tailored to the factors that placed the individuals at risk in the first place—ranging from mental health issues, substance abuse, and school disciplinary problems to racial bias, lack of parental supervision, and “anti-social” attitudes towards police and authorities.

Recidivism-reduction strategies for this population, he said, addressed the wrong problem.

“Population (crime) prevention strategies versus population management strategies would aim to reduce first exposure to the criminal justice system, not merely deploy criminogenic risk assessments during or after the first exposure,” Prins wrote.

Prins argued that both policymakers and researchers needed to “engage with the social conditions” that created criminogenic risk, and “consider the criminalizing effect of contact with the criminal justice system.”

The study was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The complete study is available for purchase here.

One thought on “Why Judges Should Be Wary of Risk Assessment Tools

  1. My son was put in a foster home at 12 because he was skipping school. Then at the age of 17 went to an adult prison he was put into solitary confinement for 6 months because of a fight. At that time I realized the foster home he was in at 12 years old, the foster father had molested all the boys. When my son got out after 3 years of prison, he found a job at a factory making minimum wage. He got frustrated and left soon to get back into selling drugs for the fast money. Every time he went to find an apartment they did a background check and would not rent to him. Then, back in to the system he went. Then at 27 he was charged with conspiracy to sell marijuana and because of mandatory minimum’s the judge sentence him to 18 1/2 years. This is a prime example of this article.

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