CRIME: Our broken, unfair prison system. Is there a better way?
Ahmed Dar, charged with murder of Roman Kaploun, makes first appearance in a
New Jersey court on Oct. 18, 2013.  If found guilty should Mr. Dar be sentenced 
on factors such as race and social status?  Or on scientific risk assessment?

As we all know, there is a large political push to reduce the cost of government. One area where costs are out of control is our system of imprisonment and corrections.

Simply looking at the money we spend locking people away doesn't tell the entire cost story.  We should look at the lost economic activity of taking people out of the work force for prolonged periods of time.

Then there is the personal cost.  Putting a man or woman in jail stigmatizes that person, making it so much harder for them to become productive members of society, and increases the odds that the person will return to crime.

Today's base article is about scientific risk assessment from a report out of Vanderbilt University with excerpts from other sources, starting with an overview of incarceration from the NAACP website.

I'm offering this with limited comment for your consideration.

The Cost of Incarceration
  • About $70 billion dollars are spent on corrections yearly
  • Prisons and jails consume a growing portion of the nearly $200 billion we spend annually on public safety
Incarceration Trends in America 
  • From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people.  (The period of "The War on Drugs. - Ed.)
  • Today, the US is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners.
Racial Disparities in Incarceration

  • African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
  • Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
  • According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today's prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%
  • One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime
  • 1 in 100 African American women are in prison
  • Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).
© 2009 - 2014 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
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Scientific risk assessment may result 
in more equitable sentences

"Science does have something to contribute to justice."

The use of scientific risk assessment in criminal sentencing is being touted by one expert as "powerful." Risk assessments use statistical information to try and discern the likelihood of convicted criminals' committing more crimes if released. None of the most widely used risk assessment instruments rely on race or income as criteria. Still, critics worry that risk assessments will discriminate against the poor and minorities.

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Given the minimal impact of long prison sentences on crime prevention, and the negative social consequences and burdensome financial costs of US incarceration rates, which have more than quadrupled in the last four decades, the nation should revise current criminal justice policies to significantly reduce imprisonment rates, says a new report published by the National Academy of Sciences.
The report concludes that future policy decisions should not only be based on empirical evidence but also should follow these four guiding principles, which have been notably absent from recent policy debates on the proper use of prisons:
    • Proportionality: Criminal offenses should be sentenced in proportion to their seriousness.
    • Parsimony: The period of confinement should be sufficient but not greater than necessary to achieve the goals of sentencing policy.
    • Citizenship: The conditions and consequences of imprisonment should not be so severe or lasting as to violate one's fundamental status as a member of society.
    • Social justice: Prisons should be instruments of justice, and as such their collective effect should be to promote society's aspirations for a fair distribution of rights, resources, and opportunities.
National Academy of Sciences
 "U.S. should significantly reduce rate of incarceration, says new report."
 ScienceDaily. 30 April 2014.
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Risk assessment
Risk assessments use statistical information to try and discern the likelihood of convicted criminals' committing more crimes if released. None of the most widely used risk assessment instruments rely on race or income as criteria. Still critics, who include Attorney General Eric Holder, worry that risk assessments will discriminate against the poor and minorities.

"Race and class affect every disposition in the criminal justice system," said Christopher Slobogin, who holds the Milton Underwood Chair at Vanderbilt University Law School. "But risk assessment instruments prevent explicit or implicit reliance on those factors, unlike seat-of-the-pants judgments by judges that, because they are opaque, are virtually impossible to challenge, even when they are influenced by an offender's race or class.

"At least when an instrument is used, the criteria are transparent, consistent and can be examined for patterns. Furthermore, research consistently shows that predictions based on well-validated risk assessment instruments are more accurate than intuitive judgments based solely on criminal history."

Caution in using risk assessments is appropriate, said Jennifer Skeem, professor of public policy and social welfare at the University of California, Berkeley.  "But putting the brakes on their use would be a myopic policy," she said. "In our view, risk assessment should be considered in sentencing within bounds set by concerns about the offender's culpability for the past crime. For example, if the morally appropriate sentence is in the range of five to nine years, then risk assessment can be used to sentence the high-risk offender to nine years and the low-risk offender to five.

  • In Virginia, the prison population has been reduced by 25 percent with little impact on public safety through use of risk assessment tools, say Slobogin and Skeem.
"Whether the use of risk assessment exacerbates, ameliorates or has no effect on existing sanctioning disparities is an open question -- one that we can and should address with research," Skeem said. "We predict that the answer will vary as a function of how well risk assessment is applied, and to what specific sentencing questions."

Slobogin insists that "science does have something to contribute to justice. Properly validated, judiciously applied risk assessment instruments can enhance both fairness and the efficient use of scarce correctional resources," he said.
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Some of the latest research on recidivism:
  • Within three years of being released from jail, two out of every three inmates in the US wind up behind bars again -- a problem that contributes to the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. New research suggests that the degree to which inmates' express guilt or shame may provide an indicator of how likely they are to re-offend.
J. P. Tangney, J. Stuewig, A. G. Martinez. 
Two Faces of Shame: The Roles of Shame and Guilt in Predicting Recidivism. 
Psychological Science, 2014
  • Murderers who committed homicide during robberies are more likely to commit crimes again when they are paroled, compared to murderers who committed homicide under other circumstances, according to research from North Carolina State University and Harvard University.
M. Liem, M. A. Zahn, L. Tichavsky. 
Criminal Recidivism Among Homicide Offenders. 
Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2014
  • In a study of crimes committed by people with serious mental disorders, only 7.5 percent were directly related to symptoms of mental illness, according to new research. Researchers analyzed 429 crimes committed by 143 offenders with three major types of mental illness and found that 3 percent of their crimes were directly related to symptoms of major depression, 4 percent to symptoms of schizophrenia disorders and 10 percent to symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Jillian K. Peterson, Jennifer Skeem, Patrick Kennealy, Beth Bray, Andrea Zvonkovic. 
How often and how consistently do symptoms directly precede 
criminal behavior among offenders with mental illness? 
Law and Human Behavior, 2014
  • Some people may be at increased risk of criminal behavior due to their genes, some say. Such research holds potential for helping judges and juries with some of the difficult decisions they must make, but it also brings a substantial risk of misinterpretation and misuse within the legal system. Experts suggest that addressing these issues will be of critical importance for upholding principles of justice and fairness.
Paul S. Appelbaum. 
The Double Helix Takes the Witness Stand: Behavioral and Neuropsychiatric Genetics in Court. 
Neuron, 2014

This post is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the literature on this subject.  It is intended to provide basic information that you can use in your fiction, and in your personal life.  This is a complicated set of issues, but can we not act to change the system given the unrealistically high financial costs?  And the often egregious personal costs faced by those convicted and incarcerated.

In short, there has to be a better way.

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Story Source:  Materials provided by Vanderbilt University. "Scientific risk assessments may result in more equitable sentences." ScienceDaily, 11 September 2014


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