Attorney General Eric Holder is taking aim at data-driven sentencing in the hopes of making time served in jail equal for all. According to Time:
Over the past 10 years, states have increasingly used large databases of information about criminals to identify dozens of risk factors associated with those who continue to commit crimes, like prior convictions, hostility to law enforcement and substance abuse. Those factors are then weighted and used to rank criminals as being a high, medium or low risk to offend again. Judges, corrections officials and parole officers in turn use those rankings to help determine how long a convict should spend in jail.
Holder says if such rankings are used broadly, they could have a disparate and adverse impact on the poor, on socially disadvantaged offenders, and on minorities. “I’m really concerned that this could lead us back to a place we don’t want to go,” Holder said. …
Holder says using static factors from a criminal’s background could perpetuate racial bias. …
But supporters of the broad use of data in criminal-justice reform — and there are many — say Holder’s approach won’t work. … Some experts say that prior convictions and the age of first arrest are among the most powerful risk factors for reoffending and should be used to help accurately determine appropriate prison time.
Several states that use data-driven approaches to sentencing are saving hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade.
Holder is correct in calling for sentencing policies that are fair. Mandatory sentencing, three-strikes laws, and other initiatives meant to balance the scales of justice have in many cases had the opposite effect, with lengthy sentences for seemingly less severe crimes, and for varying sentence lengths depending on offenders’ race and income level.
But returning to the anything-goes-era of subjective judgment is unlikely to make the system more equitable. Rather than relying on group-level socioeconomic data, look at the actions of individuals. Are we dealing with an adolescent first-time offender, or an adult, repeat offender? What’s the nature of the offense? Those data, more than their socio-economic factors, should guide sentencing decisions.
Ultimately, crimes have consequences and individual offenders need to be held accountable—regardless of the color of their skin or their income bracket.