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April 19, 2022

Justice Department tweaking prison PATTERN risk tool "to ensure that racial disparities are reduced to the greatest extent possible"

This new NPR piece, headlined "Justice Department works to curb racial bias in deciding who's released from prison," reports on the latest steps being taken to tweak the operation of the FIRST STEP Act.  Here  are the details:

The Justice Department is moving to reduce racial disparities in a tool it uses to assess a prisoner's risk of a return to crime, after scholars and justice advocates pressed for change. Among other steps, it plans to make tweaks that would significantly increase the number of Black and Hispanic men in prison who are eligible to take educational classes or work-life programs that could lead to an earlier release.

But the tool, known as Pattern, continues to overestimate the number of Black women who will engage in recidivism, compared to white women in prison.  And in its latest effort to overhaul the troubled risk assessment algorithm, the Justice Department said it is still unable to resolve other racial disparities. The department outlined the new developments in a report sent to Congress on Tuesday and obtained by NPR, pledging that it would continue to work "to ensure that racial disparities are reduced to the greatest extent possible."

"When using factors with criminal history, prison discipline, and education, the tool is almost inevitably going to have disparities — unless they correct for systemic biases in policing, prosecution, corrections, and education," said Melissa Hamilton, a law professor at the University of Surrey who has closely followed the process.

NPR dissected problems with Pattern in a report earlier this year. It uncovered sloppy math mistakes and other flaws that put thousands of prisoners in the wrong risk category and treated them differently in part because of their ethnic backgrounds. The Justice Department will roll out the new version of Pattern early next month, which it said "will neither exacerbate nor solve these racial bias issues." But the department said it was making other adjustments that could translate into a real difference for people of color in prison.

A law called the First Step Act that passed with bipartisan majorities during the Trump administration offers people in prison a path to early release, by earning time credits for performing work and taking educational classes behind bars. Only low and minimum risk prisoners are eligible for those programs, so how the Bureau of Prisons assesses risk has major consequences for their lives and their release plans.

In its new report, DOJ said it would make no changes to how it evaluates violent recidivism risks, saying that measure provided an essential check for "public safety." Instead, the department shifted the boundaries between other risk levels for its general recidivism algorithm. DOJ estimated that 36 percent more Black men and 26 percent more Hispanic men might now qualify as minimum or low risk, with smaller increases for Black and Hispanic women in prison.

UPDATE: I am pretty sure the report referenced in this NPR piece is this one just released by the Justice Department titled simply "First Step Act Annual Report."  As stated at the start of the executive summary: "This Report reflects the ongoing efforts of the Department of Justice (the Department) to make the goals of the First Step Act a reality and summarizes the Department’s activities in that respect during the period since the publication of the last annual Report, in December 2020."

April 19, 2022 at 02:24 PM | Permalink


It's hard to see what the racial biases are in the risk pattern scoring tool. I wonder if the NPR reporter looked at the document they were discussing.

Additionally the risk assessments are not used in a consistent manner. I know of an inmate that had a risk assessment score of minus 13 who was denied a recommendation for compassionate release by the bop. A minimum score is 8 and below. This inmate was a white male.

Paying BOP personnel to do risk assessments is a waste of time and money if they mean nothing. This is the link to the actual tool


Posted by: beth curtis | Apr 19, 2022 4:07:14 PM

Well, just received the First Step Act Annual Report. It is 69 pages with many links to related extensive reports to clarify parts of the annual report.


Risk and needs assessment is a big component of these reports. They are overwhelmed with verbiage to describe, clarify and support compliance. I just have to say there is very little clarity and sometimes less is more. I'm sure thousands of hours were spent preparing these documents.

Posted by: beth curtis | Apr 19, 2022 5:00:44 PM

beth curtis --

"...sometimes less is more."

DING DING DING! Having been in both the government and academia, I can tell you that government verbiage is awful and academic verbiage even worse.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 19, 2022 5:27:42 PM

Doug, Yes the First Step Act Annual Report is referenced in the NPR piece.
I posted the URL to the First Step Act Annual Report in my second post.

The problem with the NPR piece is that it criticizes the risk assessment tool. If you look at the risk assessment tool, it is difficult to see what they are talking about. You can read the entire April 2022 FSA Annual Report without really seeing the risk assessment tool.

When advocates for compassionate release and clemency attach a risk assessment tool to the motion or the petition and it places the inmate in a category that is not a danger to anyone, it should mean something.

The tool is a very straightforward document that should not be meaningless to the court for compassionate release or for clemency. There is so much discussion of it, but the discussion never seems to reveal what the document is.

This is the URL for the risk assessment tool - one page.

I'm just having a difficult time understanding where I'm off base. Is the document that inmates use to supplement petitions and motions titled Pattern Risk Scoring not the risk assessment that the Annual Report is discussing? Is the NPR piece talking about a different document? I would think that in the 69 pages, one page could be the actual risk assessment tool. I realize that they are reassessing it. Set me straight - Youth wants to know.

Posted by: beth curtis | Apr 19, 2022 9:01:59 PM

Beth, the DOJ analysis goes like this: If the prisoner's PATTERN is high, it proves that the prisoner is likely to reoffend, and thus is a danger to the community. But if the prisoner's PATTERN is low, it does not prove that the prisoner is unlikely to reoffend, and thus is not a danger to the community.

I have see this argument repeatedly in government oppositions to compassionate release motions.

The legal principle is "heads, I win; tails, you lose."

Posted by: Tom Root | Apr 23, 2022 9:40:21 AM

I am a student writing paper on the new Pattern risk score v1.3 for inmates. I am trying to obtain a copy of it or if you can please direct me to where I can look.

Thank you
Sara P.

Posted by: Sara | Jun 28, 2022 10:42:13 PM

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