There are many issues with so-called evidence-based sentencing reforms – from the lack of basic statistical validity, to the lack of transparency, to their discriminatory impact – and this article surveys all of them, with detailed links for much more information. Here’s some of the high profile criticism these methods have received:
Attorney General Eric Holder has warned that use of predictive data in sentencing is likely to adversely affect communities of color. University of Michigan legal scholar Sonja Starr explains that risk scores are based primarily or wholly on an individual’s prior characteristics, including criminal history – some instruments include not only convictions, but arrests and failure to appear in court. Other allegedly criminogenic factors “unrelated to conduct” often include homelessness, “unemployment, marital status, age, education, finances, neighborhood, and family background, including family members’ criminal history.” Starr asserts that because poor people and people of color bear the brunt of mass incarceration, “[p]unishment profiling will exacerbate these disparities.”
Yet some proponents seem to still have missed the point, including the folks behind the Public Safety Assessment – Court from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation:
Importantly, because it does not rely on factors like neighborhood or income, the PSA-Court is helping deliver these results without discriminating on the basis of race or gender.
That might be true, or it might not be. Neighborhood and income certainly aren’t the only possible attributes correlated with race and gender. The group wouldn’t release the list of 9 attributes when the authors of this article asked, so it’s not verifiable. Yet the title of the article about their tool is “Data and Research for Increased Safety and Fairness.” If they really care about fairness, I hope they release their data or at least the methodology by which they determined it wasn’t discriminatory.