A Clemson University faculty member will spend the next five years validating and proposing improvements to a risk assessment tool that is designed to predict the likelihood of re-offense by prisoners in federal facilities across the U.S.
The Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs (PATTERN) was developed for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in 2019 as a tool that would take into account factors that increase or reduce prisoner recidivism. The tool designates prisoners on a spectrum of recidivism risk from minimal to high, but by completing certain prison programming they can lower this rating and earn credits for early release. PATTERN was one of the central outcomes of the federal First Step Act of 2018, the most significant bipartisan criminal justice reform effort in recent years.
Rhys Hester, assistant professor in the Clemson University Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice, has been appointed by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to assist the United States Attorney General in monitoring various aspects of PATTERN and suggest improvements based on data captured by federal prisons across the country. Hester said that as a criminal justice scholar, the most effective course of action in this process would be to approach the tool in a neutral manner and rely solely on data that helps to tell the story of its effectiveness, which he plans to do along with his co-investigator, Dr. Ryan Labrecque, of the University of Central Florida.
“I like to say I’m agnostic when it comes to risk assessment tools in this context,” Hester said. “There could be pitfalls to relying on them blindly and exclusively, just as it could be dangerous to only rely on the subjective intuitions of the judges, lawyers and correction officers who prisoners encounter along the way. We plan to examine this tool based solely on the data and let the data speak for itself.”
Hester plans to tread carefully with this revalidation process because risk assessment tools are often accused of being inherently biased. Hester credits Congress with building in requirements to the First Step Act for revalidation of the tool’s predictive validity and for the monitoring of any disparate racial or ethnic impact. He also agrees with the decision to focus on imparting leniency or benefits to those who score as low risk, rather than in imposing extra punishment on those who score as high risk.
“Risk instruments are often more accurate in their low-risk designations than in their high-risk predictions,” Hester said. “Some observers see a different moral significance in using data-informed decisions to grant mercy to the lowest risk inmates rather than using data to ramp up the punishment someone would receive based on a future prediction of behavior that that inmate has not yet engaged in.”
Risk assessment tools have also been accused of “baking in” racial and ethnic bias that experts and the public are concerned is a natural part of the criminal justice system at large. These concerns are why measuring bias and racial and ethnic neutrality is a top priority for Hester’s examination of the tool. He will not only examine if PATTERN proves to have a high level of predictive accuracy, but he will examine how accurately it predicts outcomes based on prisoner demographics.
“We want to examine whether the tool is highly predictive and accurate; when the tool identifies a group of prisoners as highly likely to re-offend, then we expect a large percentage of those high-risk offenders to recidivate—that shows the predictions are accurate,” Hester said. “If that doesn’t happen then we have a red flag and a reason to suggest improvement.”
Risk assessment tools are not new; according to Hester, they have been used in areas like probation and parole going back 100 years. However, the implementation of such tools in federal prison systems has gained prominence in recent decades as a way to more accurately assign prisoners to the appropriate security area of a prison.
Hester said PATTERN is an encouraging tool because it measures both static predictors—aspects of the prisoner’s background that don’t change—and more dynamic factors that can be changed through prison programming such as anger management courses, job programs and other interventions programs. Hester said that the fact that the tool incentivizes inmates to take advantage of programs that also help with practical things like job training, impulse control, parenting and substance abuse only increases the likelihood that they desist from a criminal lifestyle.
“There seems to be an increasing recognition from people across the political spectrum that we need to approach incarceration in a way that is smarter and not necessarily tougher,” Hester said. “Improving outcomes through data-driven decision making is a good way to keep communities safe while helping people who have committed crimes re-integrate into society.”
Katherine Weisensee, chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice, said she is happy to see that Hester’s expertise is being utilized to not only improve an existing tool in the criminal justice system, but address many of the potential pitfalls that have become concerns for so many that the criminal justice system touches.
Weisensee said that Hester’s research clearly aligns with the department and college’s mission of “building people and communities,” as it seeks to help federal prison systems better serve individuals and, by extension, the communities to which they belong.
“We are excited that Dr. Hester was chosen to engage in this impactful work due to his recognized expertise in sentencing,” Weisensee said. “Engaging with evidence-based policy and practices are part of the core mission of our department and our college, and we are thrilled that Dr. Hester’s work will make an impact on a national level.”
The Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice is part of the University’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences (CBSHS). Established in July 2016, CBSHS is a 21st-century, land-grant college that combines work in seven disciplines – communication; nursing; parks, recreation and tourism management; political science; psychology; public health sciences; sociology, anthropology and criminal justice – to further its mission of “building people and communities” in South Carolina and beyond.
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