Risk assessments have existed in various forms for a century, but over the past two decades, they have spread through the American justice system, driven by advances in social science, reported The Marshall Project. The tools try to predict recidivism — repeat offending or breaking the rules of probation or parole — using statistical probabilities based on factors such as age, employment history and prior criminal record. They are now used at some stage of the criminal justice process in nearly every state. Many court systems use the tools to guide decisions about which prisoners to release on parole, for example, and risk assessments are becoming increasingly popular as a way to help set bail for inmates awaiting trial.
But Pennsylvania is about to take a step most states have until now resisted for adult defendants: using risk assessment in sentencing itself. A state commission is putting the finishing touches on a plan that, if implemented as expected, could allow some offenders considered low risk to get shorter prison sentences than they would otherwise or avoid incarceration entirely. Those deemed high risk could spend more time behind bars.
Pennsylvania, which already uses risk assessment in other phases of its criminal justice system, is considering the approach in sentencing because it is struggling with an unwieldy and expensive corrections system. Pennsylvania has roughly 50,000 people in state custody, 2,000 more than it has permanent beds for. Thousands more are in local jails, and hundreds of thousands are on probation or parole. The state spends $2 billion a year on its corrections system — more than 7 percent of the total state budget, up from less than 2 percent 30 years ago. Yet recidivism rates remain high: 1 in 3 inmates is arrested again or reincarcerated within a year of being released.
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