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December 11, 2017

"Assessing Risk Assessment in Action"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new paper available via SSRN authored by Megan Stevenson.  Though the paper addresses pretrial risk-assessment, I think folks interested in risk-assessment tools at sentencing should be interested in the findings.  Here is the abstract:

Recent years have seen a rush towards evidence-based tools in criminal justice.  As part of this movement, many jurisdictions have adopted actuarial risk assessment to supplement or replace the ad-hoc decisions of judges.  Proponents of risk assessment tools claim that they can dramatically reduce incarceration without harming public safety. Critics claim that risk assessment will exacerbate racial disparities. Despite extensive and heated rhetoric, there is virtually no evidence on how use of this “evidence-based” tool affects key outcomes such as incarceration rates, crime, or racial disparities.  The research discussing what “should” happen as a result of risk assessment is hypothetical and largely ignores the complexities of implementation.

This Article is one of the first studies to document the impacts of risk assessment in practice.  It evaluates pretrial risk assessment in Kentucky, a state that was an early adopter of risk assessment and is often cited as an example of best-practices in the pretrial area.  Using rich data on more than one million criminal cases, the paper shows that a 2011 law making risk assessment a mandatory part of the bail decision led to a significant change in bail setting practice, but only a small increase in pretrial release. These changes eroded over time as judges returned to their previous habits.  Furthermore, the increase in releases was not cost-free: failures-to-appear and pretrial crime increased as well.  Risk assessment had no effect on racial disparities in pretrial detention once differing regional trends were accounted for.

Kentucky’s experience does not mean we should abandon risk assessment, but it should temper the hyperbolic hopes (and fears) about its effects.  Risk assessment in practice is different from risk assessment in the abstract, and its impacts depend on context and details of implementation.  If indeed risk assessment is capable of producing large benefits, it will take research and experimentation to learn how to achieve them.  Such a process would be evidence-based criminal justice at its best: not a flocking towards methods that bear the glossy veneer of science, but a careful and iterative evaluation of what works and what does not.

December 11, 2017 at 04:57 PM | Permalink



The urban discount in action . . . ..

Posted by: federalist | Dec 11, 2017 7:27:39 PM

Should you scapegoat risk assessment?

"These changes eroded over time as judges returned to their previous habits."

Now, we are getting an automated, self administered, risk assessment, in the form of the opioid overdose crisis, with 60,000 deaths, delivered by Chinese made carfentanyl.

The Chinese have made sentencing jurisprudence unnecessary and obsolete. You lawyers have been outsourced.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 12, 2017 8:01:39 AM

Doug must have missed the urban discount in Chicago.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 13, 2017 6:44:21 AM

Doug is ablist. Crimes against handicapped people by black thugs are not a problem for him.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 13, 2017 7:42:37 AM

Sorry, fed, I missed your first comment busy with end-of-semester activities. In any event, three basic follow-ups:

1. I am never sure if your reference to "urban discount" is a claim that you think people in cities regularly get lower sentences or a claim that people of color regularly get lower sentences. Can you clarify what you mean/claim with this term?

2. Have you seen what prosecutors recommended? I see that charges are dropped in this plea deal and I wonder if this mostly reflects prosecutors here --- ala Robert Mueller --- cutting a (too) sweet deal with the first willing to plead to lesser charges.

3. The defendant here did serve a year in prison and now has a 4-year limit on social media access. You have been critical in that past, federalist, of 1st Amendment restrictions on offenders. Are you troubled by that part of the sentence here or it is different because he crime involved social media?

Posted by: Doug B | Dec 13, 2017 9:45:36 AM

So black crime victims are not alone in being devalued when their attackers are sentenced. Add the disabled to the list of the undervalued crime victims. Disability is a stronger factor of devaluation than race, according to this natural experiment. When the victim is disabled, the criminals are black, the black criminals get a discount. This effect should be tested in a death penalty study, for confirmation of discrimination, not against murderers, but against murder victims.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 14, 2017 8:16:46 PM

I don't believe that the social media restriction is constitutional. With respect to the Packingham case, my visceral reaction was with respect to the ex post facto problem, which should appall any of us. Not being able to go on social media is punishment, and it was not embodied in Packingham's criminal judgment.

However, I think I have come to the view that broad restrictions on social media for those who are not incarcerated (and yes, I am aware of the fact that the incarcerated don't have access) are unworkable and hence are unconstitutional.

This sentence is appalling. I think, Doug, you know it, and it provides yet another anecdote of an urban discount. It also shows that a hate crime against a white victim just isn't that big a deal. That's sad.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 16, 2017 7:28:43 AM

federalist, you are again using the term "urban discount" without explaining what you mean. So I will ask you again what you mean:

Q: federalist, when you reference an "urban discount," are you suggesting that persons in cities regularly get lower sentences or that people of color regularly get lower sentences?

There is no way, federalist, that I can "know" if this case "provides yet another anecdote of an urban discount" unless and until I know just what you mean by "urban discount."

What I do know is that the US Sentencing Commission issued a big data report last month which found that, in the federal system over the last four years, "Black male offenders continued to receive longer sentences than similarly situated White male offenders." The same report also found that "Female offenders of all races received shorter sentences than White male offenders" during the same period. https://www.ussc.gov/research/research-reports/demographic-differences-sentencing

This is data on federal sentencing patterns, not state sentencing patterns, but I am inclined to guess that these realities in the federal system can and should usefully inform our take on this Chicago case. Specifically, I suspect this offender's gender --- rather than where she lives or her skin color --- may be the most significant demographic variable explaining the judge's sentencing decision (though I continue to wonder about what prosecutors recommended to get her to testify against others).

I hope, federalist, I can get a simple answer to a simple question about a term you keep using if you want to claim I know something relative to this term. So I will repeat the question again hoping for a better chance of prompting a response: federalist, when you reference an "urban discount," are you suggesting that people in cities regularly get lower sentences or that people of color regularly get lower sentences?

Posted by: Doug B | Dec 16, 2017 12:00:08 PM

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