Questioning the Validity of Using Risk Assessment Tools

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has recently criticized using risk-assessment tools as part of determining a sentence or disposition, such as the Indiana Risk Assessment System (IRAS) in criminal cases and the Indiana Youth Assessment System (IYAS) in delinquency cases.  In his speech to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers on August 1, 2014, he stated:

“…[L]legislators have introduced the concept of “risk assessments” that seek to assign a probability to an individual’s likelihood of committing future crimes and, based on those risk assessments, make sentencing determinations. Although these measures were crafted with the best of intentions, I am concerned that they may inadvertently undermine our efforts to ensure individualized and equal justice. By basing sentencing decisions on static factors and immutable characteristics – like the defendant’s education level, socioeconomic background, or neighborhood – they may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities that are already far too common in our criminal justice system and in our society.

Criminal sentences must be based on the facts, the law, the actual crimes committed, the circumstances surrounding each individual case, and the defendant’s history of criminal conduct. They should not be based on unchangeable factors that a person cannot control, or on the possibility of a future crime that has not taken place. Equal justice can only mean individualized justice, with charges, convictions, and sentences befitting the conduct of each defendant and the particular crime he or she commits. And that’s why, this week, the Justice Department is taking the important step of urging the Sentencing Commission to study the use of data-driven analysis in front-end sentencing – and to issue policy recommendations based on this careful, independent analysis.”

Support for U.S. Attorney General Holder’s position includes this New York Times op/ed piece, Sentencing, by the Numbers by Sonja B. Starr, which advocates that the “punishment should depend on what the person did, not on who he is or how much money he has….Evidence-based sentencing also raises serious constitutional concerns. The Supreme Court has consistently held that otherwise-impermissible discrimination cannot be justified by statistical generalizations about groups, even if those generalizations are on average accurate. People have a right to be treated as individuals, and individuals often do not conform to group averages.”

A risk assessment summary is part of every pre-sentence report and pre-disposition report in Indiana.  For an overview of the IYAS and IRAS process, go here.

This entry was posted in Disposition, Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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