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August 31, 2017

Thoughtful account of what to think about risk assessment tools

This new commentary at The Crime Report authored by Megan Stevenson, headlined simply "Is Crime Predictable?," provides an effectively measured discussion of the use of risk assessment tools in criminal justice decision-making. Here is how it starts and ends:

Should the increased use of computer-generated risk algorithms to determine criminal justice outcomes be cause for concern or celebration? This is a hard question to answer, but not for the reasons most people think.

Judges around the country are using computer-generated algorithms to predict the likelihood that a person will commit crime in the future. They use these predictions to help determine pretrial custody, sentence length, prison security-level, probation, parole, and post-release supervision.

Proponents argue that by replacing the ad-hoc and subjective assessments of judges with sophisticated risk assessment instruments, we can reduce incarceration without affecting public safety. Critics respond that they don’t want to live in a “Minority Report” state where people are punished for crimes before they are committed—particularly if risk assessments are biased against blacks.

Which side is right? It’s hard to answer because there is no single answer: The impacts that risk assessments have in practice depend crucially on how they are implemented. Risk assessments are tools — no more and no less. They can be used to increase incarceration or decrease incarceration. They can be used to increase racial disparities or decrease disparities.

They can be used to direct “high risk” people towards support and services or to punish them more harshly.They can be implemented in such a broad set of ways that thinking about them monolithically just doesn’t make sense....

We already live in a “Minority Report” state: the practice of grounding criminal justice decisions on predictions about future crime has been around a long time. The recent shift towards adopting risk assessment tools simply formalizes this process—and in doing so, provides an opportunity to shape what this process looks like.

Instead of embracing risk assessment wholeheartedly or condemning it without reserve, reformers should ask whether there is a particular implementation design by which risk assessment could advance the much-needed goals of reform.

UPDATE: I am pleased to see that this commentary has now been given a more fitting headline over at The Crime Report: "Risk Assessment: The Devil’s in the Details"

August 31, 2017 at 11:30 AM | Permalink


Funny that this article mentions "Minority Report" and its concept of pre-crime. It strikes me that almost the entire underlying premise of sex offender registries (and any other for that matter) is basically "pre-crime."

Very dystopian.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Aug 31, 2017 6:59:12 PM

Algorithms have been used for decades by all involved in sentencing and corrections, some version of a prior offenses variable, age (and gender) variable, too frequently a race variable, sometimes a geographic one, a nature of offense one, and others more idiosyncratic to particular participants in the process. The difference now is that the algorithms are being made more overt and standardized, with greater opportunities for attributing accountability, for good or bad. The question is, which set of algorithms produce the most harm--the individual ones or the standardized ones--and that calls for oversight and good data analysis. It's not a "no algorithm" versus "bad algorithm" situation.

Posted by: mike | Sep 1, 2017 10:04:14 AM

Algorithms treat everyone equally. This is proper because there are no racial differences in the pre-disposition to crime. The 5 fold higher crime rate among blacks is from the lack of legal protection of black crime victims. All racial disparities are in the under-valuation of black crime victims, from petty crime to the death penalty.

Algorithm are to be revised yearly, from additional experience. So all complaints about algorithms will be addressed.

Algorithms allow the best thinking in the country to be applied to the most remote jurisdiction, by a yearly subscription. Algorithms should be written and revised yearly by the elected, and accountable legislature.

Algorithms are not influenced by lunch, as an Israeli study, cited in this blog, showed. It showed sentencing for matched crimes was lenient after lunch, by now less hypoglycemic and less irritable judges.

Anyone disagreeing must ride a horse to work on a snow day.

The sole remaining function of humans that is not outdone by machines is creativity. Creativity means an idea comes from nowhere, and is unpredictable, like a Mozart composition from a 6 year old child. Creativity in sentencing violates the procedural due process rights of the Fifth Amendment and the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Posted by: David Behar | Sep 1, 2017 1:01:10 PM

Fat. Dystopian? Not to the crime victim who has not been pistol whipped by a career criminal wanting his car to sell for $2000 to an auto body shop. The reason? That career criminal would have been aborted after a pre-natal DNA analysis.

Posted by: David Behar | Sep 1, 2017 1:19:44 PM

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