Risk Assessment Tools are Good (but not without Risk)

A significant trend in criminal justice these days is the adoption of risk-assessment tools. These tools–usually short surveys administered to people who have been arrested or charged with a crime or are being released from incarceration–are used to predict the likelihood of recidivism make decisions about mental health/drug treatment or social services.

In a promising development, social scientists have been seeking to validate the effectiveness of these tools. If a tool is dubbed “validated” or “evidence-based” it means there is empirical research to show that its predictions about  the likelihood of recidivism or the appropriateness of a particular social service intervention have a high likelihood of being correct. (I write “high likelihood” because nothing is ever going to be 100 percent predictive).

The application of scientific methods to these tools is exciting; it holds out the promise of being able to remove bias from decisions in the justice system (which, as we know, is rife with bias) and relying on only objective facts to decide punishment. But these tools aren’t foolproof (what is, after all?) One of those dangers is that they can overlook bias so deeply embedded in our culture, they perpetuate it.

That’s one of the points that Professor Reuben J. Miller, assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan, and his research collaborator Hazelette Crosby-Robinson made when I interviewed them for the Center for Court Innovation’s podcast series New Thinking. They outlined some of the criticisms that have been leveled against risk assessment tools. Those criticisms include placing too much emphasis on geography and criminal history, which can distort the actual risk for clients from neighborhoods that experience an above-average presence of policing and social services. “Geography is often a proxy for race,” Miller says.

You can listen to the podcast, which was recorded on Sept. 30, 2016, on the Center for Court Innovation’s site or iTunes.

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