New research from Rice University spotlights the risk of increasing mass incarceration using computerized risk assessments

As legislators consider legislation that utilizes computerized risk assessments, new research from Rice University spotlights the risk of increasing mass incarceration.

June 13 2018

New research on algorithms in criminal justice by Professor Robert Werth of Rice University asserts that the growth of risk algorithms is a central cause of generational mass incarceration.

Risk assessment tools may increase incarceration rates

Professor Robert Werth has a forthcoming article highlighting his research which he states that, “It has been argued that risk assessment tools could help stem the tide of mass incarceration.”  Instead, he says that the “evidence thus far” actually suggests that “risk assessments have contributed to expanding the number of people enmeshed in the criminal justice system.”

Werth’s research is on the heels of a groundswell of research calling into question the race and gender neutrality of these risk assessment tools and whether their “predictive parity” methodology properly controls disparate impacts on racial minorities present in one of these similar risk assessment tools.

In reviewing the study, which we cannot post for copyright reasons, one of the central examples given as having backfired is the risk assessment used in California’s parole system.  Werth, however, notes in the study, that pretrial risk assessments, like those being pushed in bail reform bills, suffer from the exact same problems because nearly all of the risk assessments are built by a small group of people are very similar in design.

Werth summarized his research in the article, and makes a compelling case, one that should cause all persons interested in reducing mass incarceration some pause. When we use these algorithms, we literally create a system that is built on past assumptions based on a mentality into which such algorithms lock us.

Professor Robert Werth


The proliferation of risk technologies has created an unprecedented legal-penal complex in which risk assessments were proliferated and used help to fortify the legitimacy according to Werth:

While I have focused here on assessment within parole, I suggest that risk techniques throughout legal and crime control arenas operate performatively and tend to reproduce their own logics. As already noted, a number of voices claim that risk and needs assessments can help mitigate or even end the era of mass incarceration. While sympathetic to the contention that risk represents a malleable logic that holds the potential to be deployed for multiple purposes (O’Malley, 2004), I would contend that risk assessment has, to this point, helped organize the penal state and fortify its legitimacy. Producing offenders and penal subjects as risky beings and reproducing them as such over time, undergirds and provides ideological support for incarcerating, supervising, regulating, and criminalizing a massive number of people, as well as for imposing an array of restrictive post-penal measures to more and more individuals. And the rise of this historically unprecedented legal–penal complex has occurred alongside, and in interaction with, the proliferation of risk knowledges, discourses and technologies.

This is a troubling finding given the fact that current proprietors of algorithms are telling policy makers that they can solve racial disparities and reduce mass incarceration, when in fact the opposite may be true from a historical perspective.

Looking forward, policy makers should be wondering if these kinds of reforms are the right answer—to further computerize the criminal justice system and potentially further legitimize the legal-penal complex.  This is why, as we have said, the promises of computerized justice are fading as the cracks in the risk-based no money bail system continue to grow in size and scope.

BREAKING: Iowa Governor Shuts Down Arnold Foundation Pretrial Risk Assessment Effective December 31

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