LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (AP) — U.S. 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 theft to serial murders, these questionnaires come with their own set of risks, according to the AP’s examination. There are dozens of different surveys in use.
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.
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. 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.
But sometimes the assessments are not accurate.
In 2013 in Texas, a routine risk assessment used on sex offenders when they are released from prison found convicted rapist Darren Vann to be a low-risk to re-offend. About a year later, in Indiana, Vann confessed to police that he killed seven women.
The Justice Department’s position on the surveys is inconsistent. On one hand, the department is helping bankroll this movement by providing millions of dollars to help states develop and roll out new policies. Yet it’s also putting on the brakes and is reluctant to use them for the federal prison population.
“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.”
Associated Press writer Alex Sanz in Atlanta contributed to this report.