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March 28, 2014

"Adventures in Risk: Predicting Violent and Sexual Recidivism in Sentencing Law"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Melissa Hamilton now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Risk has become a focal point of criminal justice policy.  Officials draw upon the sciences for the best evidence to differentiate between offenders at high risk of being a future threat to society, for whom preventive incapacitation may be justifiable, and those at low risk, for whom diversion might alleviate the overuse of imprisonment.  A recent turn in evidence-based practices is to borrow the newest technologies developed in the forensic mental health field to better classify offenders accordingly to their predicted likelihood of recidivism.

Actuarial risk assessment is considered the new frontier as a progressive sentencing reform, representing best practices in predicting recidivism risk.  The actuarial turn is adjudged to offer probabilistic estimates of risk that are objective, reliable, transparent, and logical.  Policy groups, state legislatures, judges, and probation offices actively promote the use of actuarial risk assessment, believing the empirically-derived tools effectively standardize sentencing practices, mitigate bias, and thereby increase the legal and moral standing of sentencing outcomes.

Actuarial prediction is promoted as founded upon scientific and empirical principals.  This Article critically analyzes the predictive abilities of actuarial risk prediction tools utilizing statistical, empirical, and legal methods.  A specific focus herein is the risk prediction of those criminals for whom fear is strongest: violent and sexual offenders.

Several questions are of interest: Is widespread reliance on actuarial sentencing justified? Are actuarial risk results sufficiently relevant, valid, and reliable for sentencing law?  Is actuarial evidence too prejudicial, confusing, and misleading to meet evidentiary standards in sentencing?  

The Article addresses proponents’ arguments that, regardless of any weaknesses, actuarial risk results should be admissible because they constitute merely one piece of evidence in a multi-faceted decision and that any flaws or errors in the evidence can be deduced through normal adversarial processes.

March 28, 2014 at 10:40 AM | Permalink


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Her arguments against the validity of the Static-99 and VRAG actuarial tools are particularly on point. I think perhaps both are due for an update.

Posted by: Skeptical | Mar 28, 2014 1:48:24 PM

Using any form of psychological test or evaluation is no more effective than gazing into a crystal ball. I know this sex offender sh&t creates jobs, but the underlying theme is to obtain safety for the public. Since nothing works, how about we just use the plain Ole laws like we used to. Person commits a crime, convict him/her of the violation of that law.

Person pays his/her debt to society, help them rejoin society so we can keep down recidivism.

No secret as to why this works. We have had many years of data that shows, this really works.

That is until you get a Republican or Democrat that wants to lie and scare the public so it looks like they are doing something in order to protect society.

That all comes under the heading of "How many votes can i get by lying and making up boggey men stories."

Posted by: Book38 | Mar 28, 2014 6:39:19 PM

"Actuarial prediction is promoted as founded upon scientific and empirical principals."

Bad syntax and a misspelling.

Amazing how these so-called smart people really aren't. The issue is risk allocation. Perhaps some criminal can abduct and rape some 10 year old child, beat her half to death and get sentenced to 10 years in prison and walk out and never harm another human being. Perhaps 100 of them can. But if one of those 100 gets out and kills some kid, then the risk wasn't worth taking. Sometimes, people do things that are so horrible that society is justified in removing them permanently from society so that we make sure that he never does it again. Forcible rape of a young child is probably one of those things.

I don't see how this is hard. Even a knuckle-dragger like me can get it.

Tell you what--all these people who think that we should take the risk--let these child molesters live in their neighborhoods.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 28, 2014 11:35:21 PM

federalist - my first question would be, why does the offender only get 10 years, when many people are sitting in prison for 20 years for a non-contact offense? I do agree there are some that should never be released. We have people in group homes that cannot function in mainstream society with having done nothing wrong. They were only born with mental or physical handicaps.

According to empirical data form the DOJ, states and private studies on recidivism of sex offenders, the data shows that less than 5% commit another sex offense and in most cases around 1%, that over 90% of all sex offenses are by someone that is first time offender and not on the registry and by an adult trusted by the family not just the child. Let's spend money on prevention. Sex offender does not equal child molester. "In FY 2009, 63 percent of child abduction cases involved an offender known to the victim; only 1 percent were RSOs." - FBI investigations.

Sex offenders are the politicians way to the top without ever using an ounce of true data. They go by the emotional strings of the human being to look tough on a subject or person that really isn't hiding behind the bushes, but is sitting at the kitchen table with the rest of the family with nothing in their background.

Posted by: JillSmith | Mar 29, 2014 10:36:09 AM

Real actuarial methods are too difficult.

Here is actuarial method within the scope of lawyer math. It stops at he 4th grade level, the math needed to count money:


Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 29, 2014 6:12:32 PM

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