The sometimes-controversial use of risk assessments to advise judges on sentences and pretrial release decisions was defended Monday by a psychologist who has studied the practice.
Risk assessments “can increase consistency, transparency and accuracy” of judicial decisions, Jennifer Skeem, associate dean of research and associate professor of social welfare and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a major address to the National Forum on Criminal Justice.
Skeem spoke at the opening session of the annual forum, held this year in Crystal City, Va., and sponsored by the National Criminal Justice Association and the International Community Corrections Association.
In the risk assessment process, the backgrounds of convicted and accused persons are analyzed with the idea of predicting their likelihood of committing a crime.
Skeem acknowledged that the practice has come under criticism, including by former Attorney General Eric Holder and the ProPublica website, in a story headlined “Machine Bias.”
Holder and others have argued that including defendants’ criminal records in the risk assessment analysis can increase racial bias in a justice system that already is stacked against minorities.
Skeem contended that research has shown that risk assessment offers better predictions than does the “unaided judgment” of courts.
An extensive review of post-conviction risk assessments of federal convicts found “no evidence of predictive bias by race,” Skeem said.
Virginia, one of the first states to use risk assessment extensively, has been able to divert 25 percent of prison-bound low-risk bound offenders away from serving time behind bars, without experiencing an increase in crime, Skeem told the conference.
She emphasized that properly used, risk assessments do not determine a convict’s sentence or a defendant’s potential release, but merely provide guidance to courts.
So far, the research shows that risk assessments are a “promising tool” for public safety, to reduce mass incarceration, recidivism, and sentencing disparities, Skeem contended.
Skeem delivered the annual Edwin I. Megargee Honorary Lecture sponsored by the community corrections organization co-sponsoring the conference.
Ted Gest is president of criminal justice journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.