Thursday, August 4, 2011

What???s the Risk?

Judges, probationer officers, and parole board members ask themselves this question almost every day.  What is the risk of this person re-offending during pretrial release if I grant an unsecured bond?  What is risk this probationer will commit a new crime and how closely does he need to be supervised as a result?  What is the risk this inmate will re-offend if he is released from incarceration?  This concern with risk is entirely appropriate.  A criminal justice system should not only punish offenders but try to reduce the likelihood of crime as well.  Evidence-based policy-making research suggests at least two important principles affecting management of risk in the criminal justice system:

1.  Find a scientifically reliable way to differentiate between high, medium, and low risk individuals.  The key to efficiency and effectiveness is to get better at tailoring supervision to the level of risk – at pretrial, sentencing or parole.  The first step is to identify the actual risk factors.  This is a relatively simple matter of statistical analysis.  Not all people seeking pretrial release are equally at risk of failing to appear or re-offending.  Not all probationers and parolees are equally at risk of recidivism.  Criminal justice systems tend to squander money, resources and effectiveness by treating everyone the same.  

2.  Increase supervision and treatment of high risk individuals and decrease supervision of low and moderate risk individuals.  The second important finding of the research is that criminal justice systems tend to spend too little time and resources on high risk individuals and too much on low and moderate risk individuals.  In many criminal justice systems, low-risk individuals are burdened with excessive conditions of release which in many cases almost guarantee more court appearances for violations of conditions of release which do not rise to the level of committing another offense.  At the same time, high-risk individuals are not closely monitored on probation and are allowed to commit repeated violations of probation until they eventually do commit another crime.  Research suggests that the best systems use their ability to differentiate between high and low-risk individuals to become more efficient and effective.

That is how costs go down and the crime rate goes down, too.         

For  a more extensive discussion of these principles and their use see the Kentucky Task Force on the Penal Code and Controlled Substances Act Report

Contributed by Glenn McClister