Risk as a Proxy for Race

Today, an increasing chorus argues that risk-assessment instruments are a politically feasible way to resolve our problem of mass incarceration and reduce prison populations. In this essay, I argue against this progressive argument for prediction: using risk-assessment tools to decrease prison populations would unquestionably aggravate the already intolerable racial imbalance in our prison populations and will not address the real source of mass incarceration, namely the admissions process. Risk has collapsed into prior criminal history, and prior criminal history has become a proxy for race. This means that using risk-assessment tools, even for progressive ends, is going to significantly aggravate the already unacceptable racial disparities in our criminal justice system. Instead of turning to prediction, we need to address prison admissions. Recent evidence suggests that our carceral excess was not so much fueled by the length of sentences, as it was by the front end: new admissions. The real solution to mass incarceration, then, is not to cut short prison terms though prediction, but to reduce admissions to prison.