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The United States of Risk Assessment: The Machines Influencing Criminal Justice Decisions

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The impact of a risk assessment tool can take on a whole new dimension when their scores are considered by judges in sentencing. But while the use of risk assessments in courts is mandatory in some states, most judges often have wide leeway in deciding how much, or how little, these scores factor into their decisions.

While some disregard or override scores entirely—rendering the risk assessment tools’ impact almost nonexistent—others will use them for purposes for which they were not originally intended, which comes with its fair share of controversy and legal challenges.

To be sure, there are few, if any, judges who let a pretrial or risk and needs assessment (RNA) tool make a decision for them. “I think the biggest misconception is that the judge looks at that number and that number decides bail. That number does not decide anything, it’s just more information for the judge to use,” says Judge Mary Katherine Huffman, who sits on the Court of Common Plea in Montgomery County, Ohio. The court has used the Ohio Risk Assessment System (ORAS) tool for pretrial and sentencing decisions.

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Rhys Dipshan

CT-born, New York-based legal tech reporter covering everything from in-house technology disruption to privacy trends, blockchain, AI, cybersecurity, and ghosts-in-the-machine. Continually waiting for law to catch up with tech. (It's like waiting for Godot, but without the clowns)

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