Risk-Needs Assessment: Constitutional and Ethical Challenges
61 Pages Posted: 7 Oct 2014 Last revised: 6 May 2018
Date Written: January 26, 2015
Across jurisdictions, the criminal justice system is enamored with the evidence-based practices movement. The idea is to utilize the best scientific data to identify and classify individuals based on their potential future risk of reoffending, and then to manage offender populations according to risk and criminogenic needs. Risk-needs tools now inform a variety of criminal justice decisions, ranging from pre-trial outcomes, to sentencing, to post-conviction supervision. While evidence-based methodologies are widely exalted as representing best practices, constitutional and moral objections have been raised. Risk-needs tools incorporate a host of constitutionally and morally sensitive factors, such as demographic and other immutable characteristics. The constitutional analysis herein engages equal protection, prisoners’ rights, due process, and sentencing law. In addition, the text examines the philosophical polemic aimed uniquely at sentencing as to whether risk should play any role at all in determining punishment. The Article then appraises potential alternatives for risk-needs methodologies if the concerns so raised by critics prove legitimate. Any option comes with significant consequences. Retaining offensive variables incites political and ethical reproaches, while simply excising them weakens statistical validity of the underlying models and diminishes the promise of evidence-based practices. Promoting an emphasis on risk at sentencing dilutes the focus of punishment on blameworthiness, while neglecting risk and needs sabotages a core objective of the new penological model of harnessing the ability to identify and divert low risk offenders to appropriate community-based alternatives.
Keywords: risk assessment, evidence-based practices, sentencing, equal protection, due process, prisoners' rights, recidivism, rehabilitation, corrections
JEL Classification: K14, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation