This commentary originally appeared in The Hill on March 9, 2015.
Judges and parole boards make decisions about bail, probation, and parole every day. Due to overloaded dockets, weighty decisions often must be made quickly, sometimes with insufficient information. This has forced some decision makers to rely on ‘a feeling’ or their gut instincts to determine how to sentence or release offenders and under what restrictions.
Obviously, a purely subjective or even arbitrary approach is problematic and worrisome when dealing with decisions that involve a person’s freedom and the public’s safety. Decisions could be made based on personal experiences or biases about race, gender, or appearance. Adding injury to insult, research doesn’t show that these ‘gut feelings’ increased public safety.
Judges still make these decisions everyday, and most dockets are still overloaded. But in increasing numbers, states are turning to risk-needs assessments (RNA) to assist them. Risk-needs assessments are developed common criteria for a judge to use in making determinations about a defendant’s risk level.
First and foremost these assessments are tools to increase public safety. Actuarial RNA are able to predict recidivism with remarkable accuracy, which has been retroactively validated through studies showing that those assessed as low risk re-offend at far lower rates than those classified as high risk. This is because the factors examined in the assessment determine what contributors are truly driving the criminal behavior and use that to specifically tailor the offender’s type and level of supervision and services. For example, a judge could use an assessment to determine that, even though the offender has a minor shoplifting charge, factors are present such as substance abuse, mental illness, or anti-authority attitudes that are predictive of that individual committing additional, and potentially more serious, offenses without interventions such as being placed on a smaller probation caseload, motivational interviewing, and referral to treatment.
Not using such an assessment would be the equivalent of approving a whole set of repairs to your car before running the diagnostic test. Risk-needs assessments also promote efficiency. By prioritizing prison and jail space for violent and dangerous offenders, they allow minor and low-risk offenders to be handled through alternative options such as community supervision, which both cost less and work better for them than prison.
No matter how much money is spent on criminal justice, there will always be a limited number of prison cells, probation officers, and treatment programs. Utilizing an RNA, criminal justice systems can maximize the public safety benefit for every dollar spent. This occurs not only through prioritizing prison space, but also through ensuring probation and parole officers are spending the most time watching those most likely to re-offend.
No jurisdiction uses an RNA to trump human judgment, nor should they. Instead, it is increasingly used to better inform discretionary decisions regarding offenders. No process is perfect, but when choosing between a hunch and a proven method, the choice for public safety is clear.