Saturday, February 26, 2011

Risk Assessments Play Greater Role in Criminal Justice System

Below is a summary of an extremely informative article on risk assessments and their role in the criminal justice system by Leon Neyfakh of the the Boston Globe.

“There has been a strong move toward the use of risk assessment instruments in the criminal justice system in recent years,” John Monahan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia Law School told the Boston Globe.

Most of the tools, known as actuarial risk assessment instruments, are essentially checklists that examine a range of character traits and biographical facts about an individual, crunch the answers, and use them to estimate that person’s likelihood of returning to crime, according to the Globe. Criminal justice experts refer to that phenomenon as recidivism. Some tools predict merely that an offender has a high risk to recidivate--that might mean he or she will commit another retail theft. What policy makers want to know is, who is going to commit another serious violent offense or even murder.

The way risk assessment tools actually work depends on who’s using them and for what purpose, but generally speaking they take the form of a questionnaire administered by a prison official or clinician — essentially a list of factors that have been shown to correlate one way or another with criminality. How old was the subject at the point of first contact with the criminal justice system? Has he or she ever held down a job or a long-term relationship? Is there a history of drug abuse on file? What about gang activity? Did the person stay out of trouble while incarcerated?

“The science of risk assessment is much better now than it was 20 years ago.” The instruments have gained traction not only as a public-safety measure, Monahan told the Globe, but because they allow for more efficient allocation of resources: When prison budgets are stretched thin, it makes sense to try to focus more funds on those inmates who pose a greater risk.

“The philosophy is to cast the net out and catch as many fish — that is, variables — as you can,” Richard Berk, a professor of criminology and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania told the Globe. “The computers are finding relationships that are unanticipated.”

There are concerns as reliance on risk assessments grows in the criminal justice system. Berk said that as the data available to researchers gets better, and the algorithms that are used to analyze it improve, we may find ourselves staring at uncomfortable predictions that leave us at a loss as to what to do with them. Berk’s method is to take into account as much data about people as is available — even if there’s no reason to think it would correlate with crime — and let massively powerful computers figure out what’s useful and what isn’t. Conceivably, these computers could discover that predictions could be made using someone’s shoe size and the kind of car their parents drove when they were kids.

“This is the nightmare that I have,” Berk told the Globe. “Supposing I am able to tell a mother that her 8-year-old has a one in three chance of committing a homicide by age 18. What the hell do I do with that information? What do the various social services do with that information?"

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