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Data is helping determine parole in Michigan, but are the factors being used fair?

Prison bars
flickr user Thomas Hawk

What determines whether a prisoner should be paroled?

In Michigan, that decision is informed by a risk assessment questionnaire called COMPAS.

Sonja B. Starr is a professor of law at the University of Michigan and is the co-director of the Center for Empirical Legal Studies.

She has studied the use of risk assessment tools in criminal justice systems across the country.

Starr says Michigan's COMPAS is an actuarial risk assessment instrument.

"It's a way of statistically predicting the defendant’s likelihood of re-offending on the basis of a variety of different factors," says Starr.

According to Starr, such factors include the defendant’s employment status and history, financial status and history, whether their family members have been incarcerated, whether the defendant or any of his or her family members have been a crime victim, and whether the defendant comes from a high-crime neighborhood.

And Starr says these factors incorporating the defendant’s background demographics and socio-economic status are concerning.

“It’s essentially making the length of a person’s incarceration depend on who they are and how much money they have rather than based on their criminal conduct or things within their control,” she says.

For many, using risk assessment is appealing because it allows decisions to be based on empirical data, but for Starr the evidence they are using is unfair -- flawed from the start.

"I think we need to find a way to use evidence to inform our criminal justice system without building in these discriminatory bases,” she says.

But Starr says she does give credit to the Michigan Department of Corrections for taking this concern seriously.

"Because they've actually adopted a number of reforms all connected to the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative to try to reduce arbitrary re-incarceration,” Starr says.

Even as an empirical researcher, Starr says she isn’t sold on actuarial risk assessments at all. Instead, she advocates for the traditional role of courts in sentencing and of parole boards in determining a defendant’s risk.

Starr says she understands that these bodies have to make difficult decisions when balancing the safety of citizens and the rights of defendants.

"Protecting the public is very important, but it's just not the only value that our criminal justice system has. There is a fundamental value of fairness and equity among people that is really important to the legitimacy of the criminal justice system,” she says.

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