Research News

Scientific risk assessments may result in more equitable sentences

Justice Risk Assessment Vanderbilt

The use of scientific risk assessments in the sentencing process can be a powerful tool to reduce prison populations without increasing the crime rate, say two academics who have studied the issue.

Risk assessments use statistical information to try and discern the likelihood of convicted criminals’ committing more crimes if released. None of the most widely used risk assessment instruments rely on race or income as criteria. Still critics, who include Attorney General Eric Holder, worry that risk assessments will discriminate against the poor and minorities.

Christopher Slobogin (Steve Green/Vanderbilt)

“Race and class affect every disposition in the criminal justice system,” said Christopher Slobogin, who holds the Milton Underwood Chair at Vanderbilt University Law School. “But risk assessment instruments prevent explicit or implicit reliance on those factors, unlike seat-of-the-pants judgments by judges that, because they are opaque, are virtually impossible to challenge, even when they are influenced by an offender’s race or class.

“At least when an instrument is used, the criteria are transparent, consistent and can be examined for patterns. Furthermore, research consistently shows that predictions based on well-validated risk assessment instruments are more accurate than intuitive judgments based solely on criminal history.”

Caution in using risk assessments is appropriate, said Jennifer Skeem, professor of public policy and social welfare at the University of California, Berkeley.

“But putting the brakes on their use would be a myopic policy,” she said. “In our view, risk assessment should be considered in sentencing within bounds set by concerns about the offender’s culpability for the past crime. For example, if the morally appropriate sentence is in the range of five to nine years, then risk assessment can be used to sentence the high-risk offender to nine years and the low-risk offender to five.

In Virginia, the prison population has been reduced by 25 percent with little impact on public safety through use of risk assessment tools, say Slobogin and Skeem.

“Whether the use of risk assessment exacerbates, ameliorates or has no effect on existing sanctioning disparities is an open question – one that we can and should address with research,” Skeem said. “We predict that the answer will vary as a function of how well risk assessment is applied, and to what specific sentencing questions.”

Slobogin insists that “science does have something to contribute to justice.”

“Properly validated, judiciously applied risk assessment instruments can enhance both fairness and the efficient use of scarce correctional resources,” he said.