Aug 26, 2014

Do Criminal Justice Risk Assessment Tools Perpetuate Bias?

An interesting article on Vox explores the use of evidence-based risk assessments tools in sentencing decisions and poses the provocative question: Could these tools perpetuate racial bias? The article references an interview with Attorney General Eric Holder in Time Magazine where Holder expresses concern about the use of non-behavioral factors in risk assessment tools for sentencing. 

The proliferation of evidence-based  risk assessment tools has generally been seen by progressives and conservatives alike as a good thing. These tools, as pointed out in the Time article, have saved states millions of dollars through reduced prison populations without compromising public safety. 

As a mountain of social scientific evidence over the past 20 years makes clear, decision making in the criminal justice process is froth with racial and class bias. Michelle Alexander in her book the New Jim Crow chronicles the evolution of the American racial caste system from slavery through mass incarceration. She writes: 

Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal

Evidence-based risk assessments have gain currency in criminal justice reform circles because they reduce the subjective bias of individual decision makers in the criminal justice process. Ideally, they provide an objective assessment of a person's risk to re-offend that can be factored into decision making. Yet, how these tools are constructed and used is worthy of continued discussion and research