Risk assessment in sentencing decisions: a remedy to mass incarceration?

Date10 April 2017
Published date10 April 2017
AuthorMegan R. Kopkin,Stanley L. Brodsky,David DeMatteo
Subject MatterHealth & social care,Criminology & forensic psychology,Aggression, conflict & peace,Sociology,Gender studies,Gender violence,Political sociology, policy & social change,Social conflicts,War/peace
Risk assessment in sentencing decisions:
a remedy to mass incarceration?
Megan R. Kopkin, Stanley L. Brodsky and David DeMatteo
Purpose The legal systems use of risk assessment has grown exponentially over the past several
decades. Empirically validated risk measures are commonly implemented in parole, bail, civil commitment,
and presentence proceedings. Despite their growing popularity, both policy-makers and legal scholars
question their moral and legal acceptability, particularly in presentence proceedings. The purpose of this
paper is to assess the current role of risk assessment in sentencing through an examination of the instrument
currently under construction in the state of Pennsylvania.
Design/methodology/approach Drawing on the current state of the literature, this paper evaluates
the current use of risk assessment in criminal sentencing and discusses its consequences, both positive
and negative.
Findings Four areas for improvement in the use of risk assessment in sentencing were identified.
Recommendations for change are proposed.
Practical implications While the use of risk assessment within the legal system has significantly increased
over the past several decades, the incorporation of risk assessment in presentence proceedings is a relatively
new practice. This paper provides readers with insight on the appropriateness of using risk assessment in this
context and provides suggestions for reducing ethical concerns. Recommendations for increasing the validity
and clinical utility of these instruments are also discussed.
Originality/value Although the literature on the use of risk assessment in legal proceedings is dense,
relatively little is written about their use in criminal sentencing. This paper introduces readers to this concept
by examining a risk measure proposed for use in the state of Pennsylvanias presentence proceedings. The
authors discuss concerns and propose recommendations for the future use of risk assessment in this setting.
Keywords Risk assessment, Rehabilitation, Punishment, Corrections, Sentencing, Sentencing guidelines
Paper type Viewpoint
Despite the political divide currently present across the USA, both conservative and liberals agree
that mass incarceration is a growing problem throughout the nation. In fact, US President Barack
Obama declared ending mass incarceration a national priority in 2015 (Obama, 2015). Recent
statistics estimate approximately seven million people, or one in every 35 adults, are under
supervision in one of the countrys correctional systems (Glaze and Kaeble, 2014). One in 110
adults is incarcerated or in jail (Glaze and Kaeble, 2014). These rates are seven times higher than
in other Western European democracies (International Centre for Prison Studies, 2013). With
these staggering statistics, it is no surprise mass incarceration has had both an economic and
social toll on the nation (Cullen et al., 2011).
In an effort to combat the exponential growth of US correctional systems, risk assessments are
increasingly being used in the sentencing of criminal offenders (Skeem and Monahan, 2011).
Both policy-makers and legal scholars hope evidence-basedsentencingwill better t arget the
rehabilitative n eeds of offenders, allocating the mos t resources to those offenders deeme d to
Received 6 June 2016
Revised 25 September 2016
26 October 2016
28 October 2016
Accepted 29 October 2016
Megan R. Kopkin is a
Graduate Student and
Stanley L. Brodsky is a
Professor Emeritus, both at
the Department of Psychology,
University of Alabama,
Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA.
David DeMatteo is an
Associate Professor of
Psychology and Law at the
Department of Psychology,
Drexel University, Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, USA.
DOI 10.1108/JACPR-06-2016-0232 VOL. 9 NO. 2 2017, pp.155-164, © Emerald Publishing Limited, ISSN 1759-6599

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