Thursday, June 9, 2016

Are risk assessments racially biased?

Jesse Russell, PhD, chief program officer of the National Council on Crime & Delinquency, writes about risk assessments and sentencing for The Crime Report.  Below is an excerpt:

Risk assessment, at its best, can reduce bias in decision making. At its worst, it can propagate bias.
This is exactly why using risk assessment for sentencing in adult corrections is troubling. The adult corrections system is often racially biased and overwhelmingly punitive in nature. Risk assessments used at sentencing are being used to drive punishment as the risk score moves higher.
In a racially biased system, or in a society that has inequities, risk assessment will create a disproportionate impact on a particular group, in this case, African Americans.
The key fact we need to keep in mind is that before risk assessment has any chance to influence any individual’s corrections involvement, a long list of other factors has already established inequity in the system.

For example:
Federal housing policies like redlining made it difficult for some communities to sustain intergenerational economic prosperity;
Financial redlining created pockets of underserved communities with few resources that have been linked to higher arrest rates;
Policing practices have unfairly targeted black and African-American communities; 
Drug sentencing laws have had disproportionate impacts on black and African-American communities; 
Implicit biases affect how threatening African Americans are perceived to be by decision makers, as compared to whites. 
A history of institutionalized disenfranchisement of African-American communities has eroded the representativeness of democracy. 
The destructive myth of the African-American “super predator” has shaped criminal justice policy and practice. 

Until and unless these types of structural and implicit inequities are resolved and untethered from the adult corrections system, use of fair and equitable risk assessment tools will not be sufficient to transform adult corrections in the United States.
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