Risk and Needs Assessment and Race in the Criminal Justice System

By the CSG Justice Center Staff

riskA recent ProPublica story on risk and needs assessment asked some important questions about a particular risk and needs assessment tool and the broader implications of its use.

As the national discussion continues about the use and value of risk and needs assessment, The Council of State Governments Justice Center offers the following comments on risk and needs assessment as it relates to racial disparity and bias in the criminal justice system.

1. Risk and needs assessment can contribute to racial disparity in the criminal justice system if the assessment tool is not validated properly.

  • Risk and needs assessment can contribute to racial disparity through the assignment of risk scores and the decisions that are made based on those scores if the assessment is not equally accurate across all racial groups.
  • If criminal history and factors that correlate with race and class—such as education level, employment, neighborhood, marital status, and family resources—are weighted too heavily and account for too large a percentage of the score, the assessment results can be skewed.
  • Regular validation of the risk and needs assessment tool is necessary, including assuring accuracy across racial groups. Validation is a study that evaluates a risk and needs assessment tool’s accuracy based on the characteristics of the population being assessed in the jurisdiction.

2. Risk and needs assessment can contribute to racial disparity in the criminal justice system if the assessment tool and results are not used properly. 

  • The proper use of risk and needs assessment requires training the staff who administer it and the judges and correctional/supervision staff who use its results; administering the right risk and needs assessments at the right time in the criminal justice process and accurately communicating those assessment results; adhering to a formal quality-assurance process; evaluating the data that come from risk and needs assessment to ensure that the assessment is working (i.e., predicting recidivism accurately); and revalidating as necessary.
  • Even when a risk and needs assessment tool is validated and used appropriately, its benefits can be limited unless the results are used to refer people to the correct programming and treatment to meet the individualized needs identified by the assessment.

3.   The proper use of risk and needs assessment can potentially help to limit racial bias in the criminal justice system.

  • It is the CSG Justice Center’s position, as well as that of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the National Institute of Corrections, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the MacArthur Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and multiple other federal and professional organizations, that validated risk and needs assessment is necessary to more accurately determine the risk of recidivism and criminogenic needs of people involved in the criminal justice system—and to inform how the system responds to reduce that risk and address those needs—than by relying on subjective, individual judgment.
  • The effective use of properly validated risk and needs assessment can potentially help to limit racial bias in decision making in the criminal justice system by providing an evidence-based assessment of criminogenic risk factors and needs.
  • Risk and needs assessment has consistently been shown to be more accurate than predictions of risk made without it, but it does not mitigate issues such as high arrest rates for blacks, Hispanics, and Latinos, or bias in criminal justice processing, sentencing, and management. Further, risk and needs assessment results should not be the only piece of information used to inform decisions throughout the criminal justice process.

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