Risk assessment tools designed to decrease prejudice in sentencing may be causing discrimination toward youth offenders, reports Wendy Sawyer for the Prison Policy Initiative.
These risk assessment tools score people based on many factors that can add to risk, including criminal history and age. Judges use them when sentencing, and parole boards rely on them to determine parole suitability.
“Eighteen-year-old defendants have risk scores that are, on average, twice as high as 40-year-old defendants,” law professors Megan T. Stevenson and Christopher Slobogin found.
Juveniles are often given a score of “high-risk,” with no regard to their developmental difference from adults.
In a recent academic paper by Stevenson and Slobogin, they determined that many judges did not know all the factors that went into these risk assessment algorithms and often receive classifications of risk without an explanation about what led to the determination.
This raises serious ethical and legal implications when judges who use these assessment tools don’t fully understand them. They’re also causing judges to make the same sort of discriminatory errors that the tools are supposed to prevent.
Youth is a “double-edged sword,” according to Stevenson and Slobogin, as youth offenders are seen as less culpable, but they are also seen as having a higher risk of violence. Judges across the nation often consider the diminished culpability of juvenile defendants when sentencing them, but risk assessment tools don’t.
Stevenson and Slobogin analyzed the COMPAS Violent Recidivism Risk Score (VRRS), one of the leading risk assessment tools. They found that “roughly 60 percent of the risk score it produces is attributable to age.”
The study examined seven other risk assessment algorithms and found that each of them considers youth to be equal or more important than criminal history in determining risk. This causes a judge’s perception of the defendant’s character to be unfairly affected, which also impacts sentencing.
In a recent survey of Virginia judges, only 29 percent of them were found to be “very familiar” with the risk assessment tool they were using, while 22 percent were either “unfamiliar” or only “slightly familiar” with it. In Virginia, risk assessment scores come with sentencing recommendations, Sawyer reports.
Risk assessments are further complicated by both mitigating and aggravating factors such as substance use disorders, mental illness and socioeconomic disadvantages.
Judges and parole boards can exercise discretion when making determinations, but, as Stevenson and Slobogin point out, you can’t undo the negative influence that a “high-risk” label will have .