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November 15, 2018

Interesting new report looking at intersection of risk-assessment tools and judicial selection methods

I received an email today alerting me to this interesting new report titled "Roadblock to Reform" authored by Megan Stevenson and Jennifer Doleac.  This webpage provides a video and a summary of the full report, and here are excerpts therefrom:

How do state court judges’ political incentives affect their willingness to employ criminal justice reforms?  This report, Roadblock to Reform, looks at how judges in Kentucky and Virginia have adopted risk assessment tools to inform incarceration decisions.  It considers whether judges’ willingness to use risk assessment tools is related to how the judge is selected.

The study shows that, in both states, reforms aimed at reducing incarceration for low-risk offenders had little to no impact on incarceration rates.  While these tools clearly recommended less incarceration for a large share of defendants, they had little effect on judges’ incarceration decisions.  However, there is tremendous variation among judges in how closely they follow the risk assessment recommendations.

Even in jurisdictions that require the use of these tools, the effectiveness of the risk assessments relies on how judges use the information provided to them. As is outlined in Roadblock to Reform, reforms that seek to reduce incarceration rates for low-risk offenders had little to no impact on incarceration rates in Kentucky and Virginia....  

Researchers decided to study Kentucky and Virginia because their reforms occurred at the statewide level instead of at the county level which ensures that there are many observations on which to base our analysis. In addition, both states began using algorithmic tools to aid in criminal justice decision making early on.

Kentucky has used some sort of algorithm to aid in the pretrial custody decision since the 1970s and made it mandatory in 2011.  Virginia piloted risk assessment in the late 1990’s and adopted it statewide in 2002.  Finally, both states adopted risk assessment with the explicit goal of reducing jail and prison populations. 

The key findings of Roadblock to Reform reveal that many judges ignore the recommendations associated with the risk assessment tools.  As critics have pointed out, risk assessments are not perfect, but the report serves as an important warning that the pressures placed on judges by politicized selection and retention systems are a barrier to any meaningful criminal justice reform. We will never truly fix the criminal justice system unless we get politics out of the ways judges get and keep their jobs....

If Kentucky judges had followed the recommendations associated with the risk assessment in all cases, the pretrial release rate among low- and moderate-risk defendants would have jumped up by 37 percentage points after risk assessment was made mandatory.  Instead, the pretrial release rate for low- and moderate-risk defendants increased by only 4 percentage points, from 63% to 67%.

  • The median judge in Kentucky grants release without monetary bail to only 37% of defendants with low or moderate risk status. In other words, the median judge overrules the presumptive default associated with the risk assessment about 2/3 of the time.
  • If judges had followed the recommendations associated with the risk assessment, there would have been up to a 25% increase in the diversion rate among risk assessment-eligible offenders after risk assessment was adopted statewide. Instead, the diversion rate remained virtually unchanged, dipping just slightly from 34% to 33%.
  • The median judge in Virginia diverts only about 40% of those who were recommended for diversion by the risk assessment instrument.

November 15, 2018 at 02:53 PM | Permalink

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