“Risk Assessment” Cannot Solve Systemic Injustice of Prisons

By Glenn E. Martin

Photo by Madame Psychosis, courtesy Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Madame Psychosis, courtesy Flickr Creative Commons

After 40 years of waging a failed war on crime in poor communities, conservative and progressive policy makers finally are being compelled to release the pressure valve and find ways to reform our troubled criminal justice system. The increasingly prevailing solution involves risk-assessment tools that often quantify the experience of incarcerated people to determine the extent to which they pose a public safety threat. But can the framework of risk measure the redemptive power of a second chance? And to what degree are the factors that determine “risk” situational – access to jobs, housing and community support, for example – and therefore potentially beset with race and class biases?

With more than 2.3 million people incarcerated, 7 million under some form of correctional supervision and more than 650,000 people returning from prisons each year, America is in the midst of a moral crisis. That crisis won’t be ameliorated by simply measuring re-entry and programmatic “outcomes” or hinging the success of people returning from incarceration on some Wall Street investor’s need for a substantial return on investment on a Social Impact Bond. We instead need parallel audacious national and local reforms that pry us away from our insatiable thirst for punishment and replace our current system with one that we can be proud of as Americans – one that is fair, compassionate, rehabilitative and allows for redemption.

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