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Member Research and Reports

Columbia: Study on Criminal Justice Risk Assessments

Exposure to the criminal justice system increases some of the risk factors used to predict recidivism and re-arrest, according to new research at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. For every arrest or conviction an adolescent experienced, their levels of antisocial attitudes, behaviors, and number of peers became subsequently higher. Findings provide new empirical evidence for an old claim — that exposure to the criminal justice system criminalizes people further. Findings are online in the journal Law and Human Behavior.

While “criminogenic” risk assessment is considered an evidence-based practice for predicting recidivism, that evidence comes entirely from people who are already entrenched in the criminal justice system. These latest findings show that it would be inappropriate to use the same risk assessments on people who haven’t been exposed to the system.

“Risk assessment is being heralded as a key component of criminal justice reform,” said Dr. Seth Prins, assistant professor of epidemiology and sociomedical sciences and study author. “But these findings suggest that current risk assessments cannot fully distinguish between individuals’ propensities and the fact that they have already been criminalized by a runaway criminal justice system.”

Data came from 500 boys followed from ages 7 to 28, recruited from all public schools in downtown Pittsburgh in the late 1980s.

“In the era of mass incarceration, the idea that risk factors for staying trapped in the criminal justice system are the same as the risk factors for initial exposure to the system ignores all the factors that have nothing to do with individual characteristics. We need to focus on what puts people at risk, and one of those things, arguably, is current criminal justice policy.”

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