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December 27, 2018

Spotlighting the enduring challenges posed by risk-assessment mechanisms built into FIRST STEP Act

LawProf Brandon Garrett has this important new Slate commentary headlined "The Prison Reform Bill’s Implementation Will Be Tricky; Here’s how to ensure it’s a success." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The First Step Act, the federal prison reform bill that President Donald Trump signed into law on Friday, represents a bipartisan and major effort at making the criminal justice system fairer.  This step will only be a baby step, however, if the engine that drives the entire piece of legislation — risk assessments of federal prisoners’ likelihood to reoffend — is not used carefully and with sound scientific and public oversight.

The statute ... allows federal prisoners, who now number about 180,000, to earn credits toward early release based on rehabilitative programs and their risk of reoffending.  The statute states that an algorithm will be used to score every prisoner as minimum, low, medium, or high risk.  But the legislation does not say how this algorithm will be designed. The Senate’s version of the First Step Act, which refers to “risk” 100 times, calls for a “risk and needs assessment system” to be developed in 210 days, and then made public and administered to every federal prison within the following 180 days.

That may not be nearly enough time to carefully study all of the questions raised by creating such a massive system.  Take as an example the experience in Virginia, which has been hailed as a national model and “leading innovator” by the American Law Institute for using risk assessment to divert low-risk offenders from prison.  Virginia spent several years developing its risk assessment system.  The Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission carefully obtained public input, scientific evaluations, and pilot studies, before implementing it statewide.

But in a recent series of studies of the effort to divert prisoners in Virginia, John Monahan, Alexander Jakubow, Anne Metz, and I have found that there is wide variation in how courts and judges apply this risk assessment....  People are not algorithms.  The statute’s fairness will hinge on the discretion that prison officials exercise, informed by the scores from a risk assessment but also by their own judgment.  The First Step Act’s success will similarly depend on resources for real rehabilitative programs.  It calls for evidence-based evaluation of such programs, but that research will also take time.

While using an evidence-informed tool can be better than simply leaving everything to prison officials’ discretion, there needs to be more than buy-in by the decision-makers — the right tools need to be used.  Michelle Alexander and others have raised concerns, for example, with risk assessments that rely on information about prior arrests or neighborhood information that can produce stark racial bias.  The Senate’s version of the act speaks to the potential for bias and asks the comptroller general to conduct a review after two years to identify “unwarranted disparities.”  The act also calls for an independent review body that includes researchers who have studied risk assessment and people who have implemented it.  These are important steps.  Involvement of scientists and the public will be needed to consider whether invidious and potentially unconstitutional discrimination results — otherwise, protracted constitutional litigation challenging these risk assessments will be a foregone conclusion.

Still, there is much that is positive about the bill’s many provisions dealing with risk.  The First Step Act emphasizes not just recidivism but also programs that support rehabilitation.  It is noteworthy that the legislation calls for re-evaluation of prisoners each year so that risk scores are not set in stone. All prisoners are able to reduce their classification.  This should be taken seriously.  The risk of any person may decline dramatically over time simply as a matter of age, as the U.S. Sentencing Commission documented in a study last year.

The statute also makes the attorney general the risk assessor in chief — with input from the independent scientific reviewers — of the risk assessment used on 180,000 prisoners each year.  That scientific input is critical, and it should be solicited from the broader scientific community.  It’s also worth noting that the Department of Justice has recently shut down key science advisory groups; this law hopefully takes an important first step toward bringing science back in.

December 27, 2018 at 01:07 PM | Permalink


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