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December 28, 2018

"Predictions of Dangerousness in Sentencing: Déjà Vu All Over Again"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Michael Tonry no available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Predictions of dangerousness are more often wrong than right, use information they shouldn’t, and disproportionately damage minority offenders.  Forty years ago, two-thirds of people predicted to be violent were not.  For every two “true positives,” there were four “false positives.”  Contemporary technology is little better: at best, three false positives for every two true positives.  The best-informed specialists say that accuracy topped out a decade ago; further improvement is unlikely. 

All prediction instruments use ethically unjustifiable information.  Most include variables such as youth and gender that are as unjust as race or eye color would be.  No one can justly be blamed for being blue-eyed, young, male, or dark-skinned.  All prediction instruments incorporate socioeconomic status variables that cause black, other minority, and disadvantaged offenders to be treated more harshly than white and privileged offenders.  All use criminal history variables that are inflated for black and other minority offenders by deliberate and implicit bias, racially disparate practices, profiling, and drug law enforcement that targets minority individuals and neighborhoods.

December 28, 2018 at 01:03 PM | Permalink


"All prediction instruments use ethically unjustifiable information. Most include variables such as youth and gender that are as unjust as race or eye color would be."

Umm . . . No. In a world where 95% of violent crimes are committed by men, using gender to predict future dangerousness is not ethically unjustifiable in the same way that race or eye color, which have no intrinsic causal connection to dangerousness do. Likewise, dangerousness is intimately related to age because crime follows a strong developmental pattern. It is absurd to think that it is ethically unjustifiable to treat a 25 year old and a 75 year old differently for purposes of judging future dangerousness.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jan 2, 2019 12:18:57 PM

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