Impact of Risk Assessment on Judges’ Fairness in Sentencing Relatively Poor Defendants

17 Pages Posted: 15 Jan 2019

See all articles by Jennifer L. Skeem

Jennifer L. Skeem

University of California, Berkeley

Nicholas Scurich

University of California, Irvine

John Monahan

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: January 15, 2019

Abstract

The increasing use of risk assessment algorithms in the criminal justice system has generated enormous controversy. Advocates emphasize that algorithms are more transparent, consistent, and accurate in predicting re-offending than judges’ unaided intuition, while skeptics worry that algorithms will increase racial and socioeconomic disparities in incarceration. Ultimately, however, judges make decisions—not algorithms. In the present study, real judges (n=340) with criminal sentencing experience participated in a controlled experiment to test whether the provision of risk assessment information interacts with a defendant’s socioeconomic class to influence sentencing decisions. Results revealed that risk assessment information reduced the likelihood of incarceration for relatively affluent defendants, but the same risk assessment information increased the likelihood of incarceration for relatively poor defendants. This finding held after controlling for the sex, race, political orientation, and jurisdiction of the judge. It appears that under some circumstances, risk assessment information can increase sentencing disparities.

Keywords: risk, sentencing, fairness, judicial intuition

Suggested Citation

Skeem, Jennifer L. and Scurich, Nicholas and Monahan, John, Impact of Risk Assessment on Judges’ Fairness in Sentencing Relatively Poor Defendants (January 15, 2019). Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2019-02. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3316266

Jennifer L. Skeem

University of California, Berkeley ( email )

120 Haviland Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-7400
United States

Nicholas Scurich

University of California, Irvine ( email )

Campus Drive
Irvine, CA 62697-3125
United States

John Monahan (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

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

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