« "The Federal Marijuana Ban Is Rooted in Myth and Xenophobia" | Main | Sixth Circuit panel finds one-day prison sentence unreasonable for white-collar defendant »

July 31, 2014

"Attorney General Eric Holder to Oppose Data-Driven Sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this important new article from Time detailing that the Attorney General is formally coming out against some of the data-driven, risk-based sentencing reforms based on concerns about the potential impact on equal justice.  Here are highlights from this article (with more to follow in coming posts):

Citing concerns about equal justice in sentencing, Attorney General Eric Holder has decided to oppose certain statistical tools used in determining jail time, putting the Obama Administration at odds with a popular and increasingly effective method for managing prison populations.  Holder laid out his position in an interview with TIME on Tuesday and will call for a review of the issue in his annual report to the U.S. Sentencing Commission Thursday, Justice department officials familiar with the report say.

Over the past 10 years, states have increasingly used large databases of information about criminals to identify dozens of risk factors associated with those who continue to commit crimes, like prior convictions, hostility to law enforcement and substance abuse. Those factors are then weighted and used to rank criminals as being a high, medium or low risk to offend again.  Judges, corrections officials and parole officers in turn use those rankings to help determine how long a convict should spend in jail.

Holder says if such rankings are used broadly, they could have a disparate and adverse impact on the poor, on socially disadvantaged offenders, and on minorities.  “I’m really concerned that this could lead us back to a place we don’t want to go,” Holder said on Tuesday.

Virtually every state has used such risk assessments to varying degrees over the past decade, and many have made them mandatory for sentencing and corrections as a way to reduce soaring prison populations, cut recidivism and save money.  But the federal government has yet to require them for the more than 200,000 inmates in its prisons. Bipartisan legislation requiring risk assessments is moving through Congress and appears likely to reach the President’s desk for signature later this year.

Using background information like educational levels and employment history in the sentencing phase of a trial, Holder told TIME, will benefit “those on the white collar side who may have advanced degrees and who may have done greater societal harm — if you pull back a little bit — than somebody who has not completed a master’s degree, doesn’t have a law degree, is not a doctor.”

Holder says using static factors from a criminal’s background could perpetuate racial bias in a system that already delivers 20% longer sentences for young black men than for other offenders.  Holder supports assessments that are based on behavioral risk factors that inmates can amend, like drug addiction or negative attitudes about the law.  And he supports in-prison programs — or back-end assessments — as long as all convicts, including high-risk ones, get the chance to reduce their prison time.

But supporters of the broad use of data in criminal-justice reform — and there are many — say Holder’s approach won’t work.  “If you wait until the back end, it becomes exponentially harder to solve the problem,” says former New Jersey attorney general Anne Milgram, who is now at the nonprofit Laura and John Arnold Foundation, where she is building risk-assessment tools for law enforcement.  For example, prior convictions and the age of first arrest are among the most power­ful risk factors for reoffending and should be used to help accurately determine appropriate prison time, experts say.

And data-driven risk assessments are just part of the overall process of determining the lengths of time convicts spend in prison, supporters argue.  Professor Edward Latessa, who consulted for Congress on the pending federal legislation and has produced broad studies showing the effectiveness of risk assessment in corrections, says concerns about disparity are overblown.  “Bernie Madoff may score low risk, but we’re never letting him out,” Latessa says.

Another reason Holder may have a hard time persuading states of his concerns is that data-driven corrections have been good for the bottom line.  Arkansas’s 2011 Public Safety Improvement Act, which requires risk assessments in corrections, is projected to help save the state $875 million through 2020, while similar reforms in Kentucky are projected to save it $422 million over 10 years, according to the Pew Center on the States. Rhode Island has seen its prison population drop 19% in the past five years, thanks in part to risk-assessment programs, according to the state’s director of corrections, A.T. Wall....

Holder says he wants to ensure the bills that are moving through Congress account for potential social, economic and racial disparities in sentencing.  “Our hope would be to work with any of the Senators or Congressmen who are involved and who have introduced bills here so that we get to a place we ought to be,” Holder said.

July 31, 2014 at 10:45 AM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e201a3fd3d6ab1970b

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Attorney General Eric Holder to Oppose Data-Driven Sentencing":

Comments

This makes me wonder whether there is a movement to bring back parole to the federal system.

Posted by: Todd | Jul 31, 2014 11:00:06 AM

Just another example of Eric Holder being on the wrong side of history. The factors that these data driven factors take into account are designed to eliminate disparate sentencing based on race or economics. I sometimes think that if it could be proven than [insert minority group here] statistically commits more homicides after already committing homicide, that our beloved AG would oppose using a prior murder conviction as a factor favoring an enhanced sentence.

Posted by: Cj | Jul 31, 2014 7:13:14 PM

Suppose the British had these tools and did assessments on our Founding Fathers. You know, before it was too late. What then?

My bet is that we would spell things weird and prefer tea over coffee.

Posted by: George | Jul 31, 2014 7:17:52 PM

"For example, prior convictions and the age of first arrest are among the most power­ful risk factors for reoffending and should be used to help accurately determine appropriate prison time, experts say."

The Supremacy seems to be brilliant only because the high school education has not been eradicated by the legal education as happened to the dumbass lawyer.

In reality, the Supremacy is only a couple of years ahead of the mainstream. The above quote says, 123D, start the count at 14. In a few years, the expert will be saying, the deceased have a low recidivism rate as you have repeatedly heard here in the Comments.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 1, 2014 3:01:06 AM

So our esteemed AG wants to follow "evidence-based policies" only when the results meet his partisan agenda. Still want to have that "conversation on race" Eric?

Posted by: mjs | Aug 1, 2014 11:36:33 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB