Risk Assessments: Will People be Sentenced for Crimes they Might Commit in the Future

Fivethirtyeight.com took an in-depth look at the growing use of Risk Assessments in the criminal justice system. Risk Assessments generally use statistical comparisons to determine whether people’s circumstances are more likely to re-offend. So far, they have primarily been used as part of the evaluation as to what bond, if any, is appropriate for pretrial release. One of the main functions of bond are to protect the community from future harm, and the statistics can help predict the likelihood of additional offenses while the person is on community release. They are used here in Lee County as part of the First Appearance (bond) hearing, as well as statewide in Juvenile court.

Now, some places are considering using them in sentencing, the article specifically references Pennsylvania considering it. In theory, such a sentencing plan could help provide less harsh sentences for people who are unlikely to re-offend. However, the big problem that jumps out is the converse… that people could be sentenced more harshly for the chance that they could commit more crimes. That is, they would be punished for crimes they had not committed. That’s inherently problematic, and would likely face Constitutional challenges if the doctrine ever becomes law. There are additional problems, such as inherent racial imbalances that would likely permeate a statistical system, and departing from individual, case by case sentencing that could specifically consider the characteristics of each case and each Defendant.

The use of Risk Assessments in sentencing runs a severe risk unfairly punishing people based on speculative, generic “likelihood” guesses of future offenses. That doesn’t do a good job of evaluating the person involved, and may not sentence people for the crimes they actually commit. Further, it is likely to run afoul of Constitutional safeguards against unusual punishment.

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