Judging Risk: Judicial Use of Adolescent Risk Assessment

Through the advancement of technology, algorithmic tools have become widespread and are currently being implemented in the criminal justice system. One popular form of algorithmic tools is risk assessments. Risk assessment tools have been devised to assess a defendant’s risk for reoffending and their risk of failing to appear in court. Scores collected from these assessments can serve as a guideline for judges’ placement and program decisions. Although there are many benefits associated with risk assessment tools, many have argued they are inaccurate and have biases attached to them. Some tools may consider demographics such as race/ethnicity or socioeconomic status risk factors, fostering systemic biases. As judges are the ones most utilizing risk assessment tools, it is helpful to understand their perspectives on the tool and the influence it plays on their decisions.

In What Are Judges’ Views of Risk Assessments, and How Do Tools Affect Adolescent Dispositions?, Jonnson and Viljoen (2021) gathered judges' opinions about risk assessment tools. Results revealed that judges believe risk assessment ratings should be given moderate importance, however, it should not be the only determinate in making a decision. Most agreed it serves to provide supplemental data they would not be able to determine from their own judgement. In terms of utilizing risk assessment tools for juveniles, there was slight agreement that they should air more on the side of caution.

Jonnson and Viljoen further examined how the presence or absence of a risk assessment tool affects judges’ impression of a high-risk or low risk adolescent who has committed a crime. The researchers designed an experimental manipulation that consisted of four different vignettes, all of which described an adolescent committing a moderate theft crime. The adolescent was portrayed as either low risk or high risk. For each of the adolescents, the judges were informed a risk assessment tool had been utilized to assess whether the adolescent was high risk or low risk. In the remaining two conditions, no risk assessment tool was stated to be used. Results revealed that the presence of a risk assessment score had no significant effect on how the judges viewed the adolescent. Instead, greater priority was placed on the risk level of the adolescent, with the high-risk adolescent being viewed more negatively and the low-risk adolescent being viewed less negatively.

In terms of placement and programming, the use of the tool had mixed effects for the low risk and high-risk adolescent. For the low-risk adolescent, risk score had no effect on placement or programming recommendations. For the high-risk adolescent, risk score resulted in 96% of judges recommending intensive programing whereas score absence resulted in only 78.6% recommending intensive programming. Also, for the high-risk adolescents, there was greater consistency among the judges’ decisions. This means risk assessments may guide judges to give similar sentences for the same types of crimes whereas consistency in sentencing can vary more when left entirely to their discretion.

Research concerning risk assessment tools’ use in the courtroom is highly controversial. Although this study produced a stronger understanding of judges’ perceptions of tools and their impacts on their decisions, only a small number of judges that were contacted completed this study. This affects whether the results from such a small sample can truly be applied to all judges. Moving forward, it is important to further research the biases of risk assessment tools and what should be included as risk factors.

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