Criminal sentencing has long been based on the present crime and, sometimes, the defendant’s past criminal record. In Pennsylvania, judges could soon consider a new dimension: the future.
Pennsylvania is on the verge of becoming one of the first states in the country to base criminal sentences not only on what crimes people have been convicted of, but also on whether they are deemed likely to commit additional crimes. As early as next year, judges there could receive statistically derived tools known as risk assessments to help them decide how much prison time — if any — to assign.
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. 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.
States across the country are facing similar problems — Pennsylvania’s incarceration rate is almost exactly the national average — and many policymakers see risk assessment as an attractive solution. Moreover, the approach has bipartisan appeal: Among some conservatives, risk assessment appeals to the desire to spend tax dollars on locking up only those criminals who are truly dangerous to society. And some liberals hope a data-driven justice system will be less punitive overall and correct for the personal, often subconscious biases of police, judges and probation officers. In theory, using risk assessment tools could lead to both less incarceration and less crime.
Picture: Sandy Horvath-Dori from Grand Junction, CO, USA (Hall of Doors) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons