Risk Assessment in Criminal Sentencing

Posted: 30 Mar 2016

See all articles by John Monahan

John Monahan

University of Virginia School of Law

Jennifer L. Skeem

University of California, Berkeley

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: March 2016


The past several years have seen a surge of interest in using risk assessment in criminal sentencing, both to reduce recidivism by incapacitating or treating high-risk offenders and to reduce prison populations by diverting low-risk offenders from prison. We begin by sketching jurisprudential theories of sentencing, distinguishing those that rely on risk assessment from those that preclude it. We then characterize and illustrate the varying roles that risk assessment may play in the sentencing process. We clarify questions regarding the various meanings of “risk” in sentencing and the appropriate time to assess the risk of convicted offenders. We conclude by addressing four principal problems confronting risk assessment in sentencing: conflating risk and blame, barring individual inferences based on group data, failing adequately to distinguish risk assessment from risk reduction, and ignoring whether, and if so, how, the use of risk assessment in sentencing affects racial and economic disparities in imprisonment.

Suggested Citation

Monahan, John and Skeem, Jennifer L., Risk Assessment in Criminal Sentencing (March 2016). Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 12, pp. 489-513, 2016, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2756436 or http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-021815-092945

John Monahan (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
434-924-3632 (Phone)

Jennifer L. Skeem

University of California, Berkeley ( email )

120 Haviland Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-7400
United States

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