What are prisons for?
Yesterday i had the good fortune to interview Sonja Starr, who has been researching evidence-based sentencing models and wrote this New York Times op-ed on the subject.
If you haven’t heard about them, they are “recidivism risk” models being widely used by judges – in 20 states at least – to help determine sentencing lengths. Different judges will use them differently, but think of them as one factor in deciding how long someone convicted of a crime goes to jail. Recidivism refers to the concept of returning to jail, so high recidivism risk means someone is deemed by this model to be likely to return to jail, and when a judge sees that, they typically put them in jail for longer.
Moreover, the attributes which go into recidivism models are often proxies for race and class, which means that, hidden underneath the computer code, a given judge is essentially putting someone away for longer because they are poor.
So, there are lots of issues, but one thing I asked her to talk to me about was whether recidivism is the right question in the first place. After all, when we consider recidivism we are judging someone more harshly if “people like them,” however that is defined, have recommitted crimes after being in jail. In other words, we are judging them more harshly because we suspect they might commit a crime in the future. This is Minority Report type stuff.
The other side of the argument is that judges are explicitly told to decide on sentencing based on multiple factors, and always have been. Namely:
- Punishment for the crime that was committed (“just deserts”)
- deterrence for others who will want to avoid prison,
- the public good – we want to protect people from criminal acts, and
- rehabilitation, where we prepare the prisoner to be a well-functioning member of society after they leave prison.
The third goal, that of protecting the public, is where recidivism comes in. If we have good reason to believe the person will commit yet another crime, we want to keep them away from doing so, or even better decrease their recidivism risk with various methods. A few problems, however:
- The models don’t measure the effect of prison on recidivism risk.
- In fact they don’t measure how recidivism risk changes at all.
- The recidivism risk models are probably amplifying that third factor in judges’ sentencing opinions.
- Drug offenders have higher recidivism risks than people who commit violent crime, but we really only care about the latter in terms of the public good.
After thinking this through, I’m pretty convinced that, aside from using problematic inputs in recidivism models, we need to carefully examine how we want to weight those four factors.