|"So, how'd I do on your test?"|
"States are trying to reduce prison populations with secretive, new psychological assessments to predict which inmates will commit future crimes and who might be safe to release, despite serious problems and high-profile failures, an Associated Press investigation found.
These programs are part of a national, data-driven movement to drive down prison populations, reduce recidivism and save billions. They include questionnaires often with more than 100 questions about an offender's education, family, income, job status, history of moving, parents' arrest history — or whether he or she has a phone. A score is affixed to each answer and the result helps shape how the offender will be supervised in the system — or released from custody.
Used for crimes ranging from petty thievery to serial murders, these questionnaires come with their own set of risks, according to the AP's examination.
Many rely on criminals to tell the truth, and jurisdictions don't always check to make sure the answers are accurate. They are used inconsistently across the country, sometimes within the same jurisdiction. The same defendant might be scored differently in the same crime.
Supporters cite some research, such as a 1987 Rand Corp. study that said the surveys accurately can predict the likelihood of repeat offenses as much as 70 percent of the time if they are used correctly. But even the Rand study, one of the seminal pieces of research on the subject, was skeptical of the surveys' overall effectiveness. It's nearly impossible to measure the surveys' impact on recidivism because they are only part of broader efforts.
Some surveys have the potential to punish people for being poor or uneducated by attaching a lower risk to those who have steady work and high levels of education. [But being poor or uneducated are significant predictors of recidivism!] The surveys are clouded in secrecy. Some states never release the evaluations, shielding government officials from being held accountable for decisions that affect public safety.
"It is a vast improvement over the decision-making process of 20, 30 years ago when parole boards and the courts didn't have any statistical information to base their decisions on," said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which is working with the Justice Department to shape reforms nationally.
"Criminal sentences must be based on the facts, the law, the actual crimes committed, the circumstances surrounding each individual case, and the defendant's history of criminal conduct," Attorney General Eric Holder told the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in August. "They should not be based on unchangeable factors that a person cannot control, or on the possibility of a future crime that has not taken place."
Cost savings, however, make these tools appealing to states.
North Carolina, for instance, could save $560 million by 2017, a Justice Department report concluded. Between 2011 and 2014, the North Carolina prison population decreased by more than 3,000 people, according to the state. These reforms, including the use of risk assessments, has saved the state nearly $84 million, and it plans to route $32 million of those savings for community treatment programs."
Personality predicts behavior. That's science. Our measures of, say, psychopathy, are not perfect, and neither is our detection of criminal behavior, so, sure, there are going to be errors. THERE WILL ALWAYS BE ERRORS. That's why the only way to ensure that no innocent people are in prison is to not sentence anyone to prison. The use of predictive tools to guide parole decisions actually reduces the error rate: low risk people are more likely to be released, and high risk people are more likely to be retained. With regard to psychopathic personality, a psychopath is at least twice as likely to recidivate (i.e., commit the same crime again) as a non-psychopath. So if you're looking to reduce your prison population, who should you release? Let me give you a hint: Hang on to the psychopath. Can psychopathy be measured reliably and accurately? Well, just about as well as an MRI can detect a tumor growing in your brain. Which is to say -- YES.
That the Attorney General of the United States seems to be opposed to the use of scientifically validated instruments to predict future behavior is sad, but unsurprising. You don't have to know anything about science or statistics to be a lawyer, or a politician. In fact, it seems that the less they know about those subjects, the more successful they are.
See also: Parole Boards Use Software to Predict Recidivism