States have turned to a data-driven movement to drive down prison populations, reduce recidivism and save billions of dollars. One core element is the use of risk-and-needs assessment tools that explore issues well beyond criminal history. These include detailed surveys given to offenders making their way through the justice system.
Five things to know about risk assessment surveys:
—THEY COULD BE USED IN A COURT SYSTEM NEAR YOU: Dozens of different surveys are being used across the country. The surveys vary in the kinds of questions asked and how they are used. Largely confined to parole and probation decisions, these surveys are increasingly being used for sentencing.
—IT'S A SECRET: The survey results — and in some cases the actual survey questions — are clouded in secrecy. Some states never release the evaluations, shielding government officials from being held accountable for decisions that affect public safety.
—100 QUESTIONS: Some of the surveys can include more than 100 questions and explore a defendant's education, family, income, job status, history of moving, parents' arrest history, or whether he or she has a phone. A score is affixed to each answer and the result helps shape how the defendant will be supervised in the system.
—HONEST CRIMINALS: Many of the surveys rely on criminals to tell the truth, though jurisdictions do not always check to make sure the answers are accurate. Something as basic as the age of an offender's first arrest could have an impact on the risk score.
—PUNISHED FOR BEING POOR: Some of these surveys have the potential to punish people for being poor or uneducated by attaching a lower risk to those who have steady work and high levels of education.