Op/Ed: Judging Future Criminality Through Risk Assessments-USDOJ


Judging Future Criminality Through Risk Assessments-USDOJ. The following article has been written by Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. It includes editorial content which is the opinion and story of the writer.


The National Institute Of Justice offers data on which incarcerated groups have the highest rates of recidivism (i.e. arrests and incarcerations).

We were supposed to have validated criminal risk instruments decades ago. It was supposed to insure a fair application of justice without jeopardizing public safety. Options were supposed to be based on risk scores.

Without effective risk instruments, the future of criminal justice reform is unstainable.


Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr.

Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of directing award-winning public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Former Adjunct Associate Professor of criminology and public affairs-University of Maryland, University College. Former advisor to presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. Former advisor to the “McGruff-Take a Bite Out of Crime” national media campaign. Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. Former police officer. Aspiring drummer.

Author of ”Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization” available at Amazon and additional booksellers.

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This article is based on a new document from the National Institute of Justice, US Department of Justice addressing criminal risk instruments and the groups that recidivate the most (based on arrests and incarcerations).

Throughout the last two decades, the US correctional system (including parole and probation) has used risk analysis tools to determine future recidivism. Risk assessments were supposed to provide the justice system with impartial tools to judge who belongs in prison, who could be released early, or who could receive lower levels of supervision while on parole and probation.

Risk assessments were designed to create a fairer justice system without jeopardizing public safety. Without effective risk instruments, without evidence-based data, the future of criminal justice reform is unstainable.

Years ago, we were assured that risk assessments were accurate “if” they were validated for local conditions. To many of us this didn’t make sense because risks are universal (i.e. if you have ten arrests and five convictions and are 25 years old and have a history of substance abuse and/or mental health problems) why wouldn’t a risk evaluation be accurate regardless of local influences?

The heart and soul of the problem are risk assessments being influenced by race and other demographics. For the past 20 years, most (if not all) risk assessments were labeled racist because groups were evaluated at a higher probability for recidivism (i.e. new criminality) than others.

That hasn’t changed.

The assessment below comes from the National Institute of Justice. It’s their third try by the best and brightest in the field to create a valid risk assessment instrument without race or demographic bias. The effort is called PATTERN.

Per the report, it raises “a clear concern related to PATTERN’s racial and ethnic neutrality.” In simpler terms, after decades of discussion and research, they did not accomplish their task of a race-neutral instrument.  But the “study findings continue to demonstrate that PATTERN is a strong and valid predictor of general and violent recidivism.”

Editor’s note, I use reordered and lightly edited paragraphs for the reports below.

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“Ravenous Wolves?”

There are endless advocates insisting that we should not measure recidivism based on new crimes or incarcerations.

Per Newsweek, “We know for a fact—as credible a fact as we get from the criminal justice system—that more than eight out of 10 prisoners in the United States are rearrested after release. These data suggest some inconvenient truths about our criminal justice system—inconvenient, that is, to putative “reformers” determined to decarcerate the United States.”

“First, the high reoffending rates suggest that those in prison are typically there for a good reason. Unless one believes that prisons are so criminogenic (meaning, that they encourage criminality) that inmates enter pure but leave corrupted, it is hard to explain the preponderance of post-release crime. In fact, there is little evidence that prison is criminogenic. If it were, then longer sentences would produce more crime. But a 2021 review of the relevant research found “no substantial evidence” that longer sentences have a criminogenic effect. In other words, there is little indication that longer sentences generate more crime after release, or that shorter sentences produce less.”

“Second, a relatively small number of people commit a large proportion of the serious crimes. Around 5% of the United States population is responsible for half of all crime. These “ravenous wolves” keep repeating their predations until the criminal justice system finally incapacitates them.”

“Third, rehabilitation within prison walls is largely ineffective. If it worked, we simply wouldn’t be getting an 83% recidivism rate for discharged prisoners—which is what the data evince.”



Is There Evidence That Groups Have Higher Rates For Violent Criminal History? 

From The Conversation, “It has long been accepted that the racial disparity in incarceration rates for drug offenses is the result of bias in the system. Black people do not use or traffic drugs more than their white counterparts. Rather, Black communities have borne the brunt of drug imprisonment because of discriminatory enforcement.”

“But this does not seem to be the case when it comes to felony violence. There is evidence to suggest that the relatively higher Black incarceration rates for violent crimes, especially homicides, are due to an overrepresentation of violent offenders and victims in Black communities.”

“The homicide rate for Black Americans (29.3 per 100,000) was about seven and a half times higher than the white homicide rate (3.9 per 100,000) in 2020. Black Americans were also about twice as likely to report receiving medical treatment for physical injuries sustained from an assault.”

“According to the most recent data available, despite accounting for roughly 14% of the U.S. population, Black Americans comprise over half of the known homicide offenders and more than a third of rape, robbery and aggravated assault offenders identified by victims.”


The Conversation

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National Institute of Justice Executive Summary-Risk Prediction Instruments

The First Step Act of 2018 (FSA) mandated the development and implementation of a risk and needs assessment system in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

The First Step Act also required that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) review, validate, and publicly release the risk and needs assessment system — the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs (PATTERN) — on an annual basis.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) contracted with Dr. Rhys Hester and Dr. Ryan Labrecque as consultants for the annual review and revalidation of PATTERN. This document is the third review (emphasis added) and revalidation report.

The current report analyzes a subsequent cohort of fiscal year (FY) 2018 BOP releasees and evaluates PATTERN for its predictive accuracy, dynamic validity, and racial and ethnic neutrality, as mandated by the FSA.

It also expands upon the prior analyses by including one-, two-, and three-year recidivism outcomes, assessing what proportion of change in risk scores and levels is influenced by the current age item, and providing additional descriptive information on individual items, risk scores and levels, and outcomes by race and ethnic group.

Finally, this report provides an update on actions taken by NIJ and DOJ in the past year and the ongoing efforts to review and improve PATTERN.

The FY 2018 cohort study findings continue to demonstrate that PATTERN is a strong and valid predictor of general and violent recidivism.

PATTERN predicted both types of recidivism at the one-, two-, and three-year follow-up periods.

Comparisons of recidivism rates by risk level category (RLC) and predictive value analyses by risk level grouping also continue to indicate that such risk level designations provide meaningful distinctions of recidivism risk.

In addition, the results continue to suggest that individuals can change their risk scores and levels during confinement.

Changes in risk were not driven exclusively by changes in age (emphasis added). Editor’s note: that’s a remarkable finding because all risk instruments use age as a strong predictor of future criminality.

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Those who reduced their risk level category from first to last assessment were shown to have the lowest recidivism rates, followed by those who maintained the same risk level and those with a higher risk level, respectively.

While the study findings continue to indicate that PATTERN is predictively accurate across the five racial and ethnic groups analyzed, there remains evidence that the instrument overpredicts the risk of recidivism for some racial and ethnic groups (emphasis added) relative to white individuals.

NIJ and DOJ remain committed to revising and updating PATTERN to improve the “equitability, efficiency, and predictive validity of the risk assessment system” including “to ensure that racial disparities are reduced to the greatest extent possible.

In April 2022, the U.S. Attorney General modified the general recidivism risk level category cutpoints to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in PATTERN and expand the number of individuals eligible for the First Step Act.

Throughout 2022, NIJ has also engaged with subject matter experts to discuss potential strategies for addressing racial and ethnic bias, and DOJ held stakeholder engagement sessions to solicit additional feedback on PATTERN.

These engagements have informed the ongoing efforts to refine and improve PATTERN, including considerations of how recidivism is defined, which data inputs are used for scoring, and whether modeling changes might reduce the racial and ethnic disparities in the tool.

Racial and Ethnic Neutrality Tables provide the PATTERN item scores and recidivism outcomes for males and females by race and ethnic group.

There are numerous differences found in the item scores across the five racial and ethnic groups in both genders.

White and Asian individuals tend to be older than Black, Hispanic, and Native American individuals.

For example, 11.5% of white males are age 29 or younger, while 21.7% of Black males and 32.4% of Hispanic males are age 29 or younger.

There are differences in criminal history across groups as well. Over 30% of white, Hispanic, and Asian males fall into the lowest criminal history point category (0-1), while only 12.7% of Black males fall into that category (emphasis added).

Similar but less pronounced age differences appear for the females; for example, 17.7% of white females are age 29 or younger, while 21.3% of Black females are age 29 or younger.

Native American and Black individuals are also more likely to have a violent conviction (emphasis added) than white, Hispanic, and Asian individuals.

There are also some measures with group similarities, including program completion and work program completion among white, Black, Hispanic, and Asian males and females.

There were meaningful differences in recidivism rates detected across the racial and ethnic groups of both genders.

Black and Native American males had the highest rates of observed three-year general recidivism (53.5% and 72.7%) and violent recidivism (24.2% and 26.0%), while Asian males had the lowest rates of these two outcomes (31.8% and 11.3%) (emphasis added).

The female recidivism rates exhibited a notably different trend: Native American and white females had the highest rates of observed three-year general recidivism (56.8% and 33.4%), and Native American and Black females had the highest rates of observed three-year violent recidivism (12.5% and 6.8%) (emphasis added).

Asian females had the lowest rates of both general and violent recidivism (15.9% and 3.4%).

It is also important to point out that Black and Hispanic females both had lower rates of general recidivism (26.8% and 27.4%) than white females (33.4%) (emphasis added).

What’s Contained in The First Step Act?

See the federal Bureau of Prisons

Pendulum Will Come Back Around

Conclusions From The National Institute Of Justice

In addition, while the focus here is on differential results adapted from the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, those standards do not impose strict requirements on absolute parity across groups.

Furthermore, PATTERN addresses five distinct racial and ethnic groups, which poses unique challenges over the examinations found in the criminal justice literature that have typically considered just two racial or ethnic groups.

Nevertheless, the differential prediction results raise a clear concern related to PATTERN’s racial and ethnic neutrality (emphasis added).

Last year’s review and revalidation report acknowledged “there are no simple solutions to this complex problem” and indicated that “deliberate study and engagement with stakeholders and experts are warranted to identify an optimal path forward.”

The report stated that NIJ and its consultants would “continue to investigate potential solutions for the differential prediction issues identified.”

Efforts to address these issues to date are detailed in part 1 and include the Attorney General’s 2022 changes to the RLCs to mitigate racial and ethnic impact, and ongoing efforts to reconsider the data and methodology based on engagement with experts and stakeholders. NIJ and DOJ are committed to these efforts to fulfill the FSA mandate to pursue potential revisions or updates to PATTERN “to ensure that any disparities identified … are reduced to the greatest extent possible.”


National Institute Of Justice

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National Offender Recidivism Rates at Offender Recidivism.

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Op/Ed: Judging Future Criminality Through Risk Assessments-USDOJ


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