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January 28, 2016

"Gender, Risk Assessment, and Sanctioning: The Cost of Treating Women Like Men"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new paper authored by Jennifer Skeem, John Monahan and Christopher Lowenkamp now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Increasingly, jurisdictions across the U.S. are using risk assessment instruments to scaffold efforts to unwind mass incarceration without compromising public safety. Despite promising results, critics oppose the use of these instruments to inform sentencing and correctional decisions. One argument is that the use of instruments that include gender as a risk factor will discriminate against men in sanctioning.

Based on a sample of 14,310 federal offenders, we empirically test the predictive fairness of an instrument that omits gender, the Post Conviction Risk Assessment (PCRA). We found that the PCRA strongly predicts arrests for both genders — but overestimates women’s likelihood of recidivism.  For a given PCRA score, the predicted probability of arrest — which is based on combining both genders — is too high for women.  Although gender neutrality is an obviously appealing concept, it may translate into instrument bias and overly harsh sanctions for women.  With respect to the moral question of disparate impact, we found that women obtain slightly lower mean scores on the PCRA than men (d= .32); this difference is wholly attributable to men’s greater criminal history, a factor already embedded in sentencing guidelines.

January 28, 2016 at 06:49 PM | Permalink



Thanks for highlighting this very important paper. The paper can be read in a variety of ways. But, at a minimum, the paper establishes why PCRA should be used at sentencing, albeit cautiously.

All the best.

Richard G. Kopf
Senior United States District Judge (Nebraska)

Posted by: Richard Kopf | Jan 28, 2016 10:54:51 PM

Please correct me if I am wrong, but did I read you right to think you said that we should give preferential treatment based on gender (in this case, the female gender)? I oppose any gender or any race/class getting across-the-board preferential treatment. True, women still commit less violent crime than men, but that does not mean that they do not commit any violent crime that menaces the public safety merely because only a handful of women do so. By the same token, not all men in prison are there for violent crimes that menace public safety. Many of the heinous dangerous crimes that many men commit are against victims of the same gender. More lower income people commit crimes of violence than the wealthy although most of their victims are also poor people usually of the same ethnic or racial group. Does this mean we should punish all men and low income and non-white criminals across the board because of the actions of a few? Does this mean we should allow even violent women who menace little children like Susan Smith off scot free or with more lenient sentences because of gender? I say no emphatically. I believe in an individual case-by-case basis. This is the only way to have fair and equitable sentencing.

Posted by: william r. delzell | Jan 29, 2016 10:02:07 AM

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