— photo source: amazon / shutterstock

Once again, the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission is planning to implement a Risk Assessment Tool (RAT) that could punish young Black men from the hood much more than any other group. The Commission tried before and failed before following public hearings in Philadelphia last year on June 6 and December 12.

Backlash from lay persons in the community and experts in penology-related fields sent the Commission’s RAT plans scurrying to the reactionary sewers from whence they came. But, as Heather O’Rourke said in the classic 1986 horror film follow-up, Poltergeist II, “They’re baaaaack!”

The RAT, which stems from a 2010 legislative mandate to reduce judicial bias and mass incarceration, could ironically increase both because it’s based on an algorithm consisting of certain data unreliably designed to predict a result. And it’s the data that’s the problem because they include age, gender, community, and employment status.

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In other words, because younger people are arrested and convicted more than older people and males are arrested and convicted more than females and poor people are arrested and convicted more than rich people, young Black guys from poverty-stricken neighborhoods will be punished more harshly than anyone else.

If you think I’m exaggerating about the inherent bias of the data, consider the fact that the Commission itself has, in the past, conceded that its “risk assessments are based [in part] on... professional judgment... demographic factors... [and] employment....” In addition to that prior concession, the Commission has also admitted that its “risk scales are not perfect.” No kidding.

More specifically and currently, there are three major flaws with the dirty RAT plans. First- it claims to be able to predict future criminality. WTF? This reminds me of the 2002 science fiction film, Minority Report. In it, Tom Cruise, a member of a specialized police unit in DC/Northern Virginia called “Pre-Crime,” arrests people based on speculative information provided by “Pre-Cogs,” which are three mutated human so-called experts claiming to be able to predict future violent crime. Unfortunately for society, those “Pre-Cogs” make mistakes- as they did when they falsely accused Pre-Cog Officer Cruise himself of a future violent crime. The Commission apparently wants to bring Hollywood and the future to Pennsylvania and the present.

Second- if a person scores too high or too low on the first evaluation, i.e., assessment, the sentencing judge would be required to surrender his/her/their necessarily flexible decision-making authority to a one-size-fits-all tool used robotically by overworked and under-resourced probation and parole officers. Moreover, that aforementioned person, if labeled low-risk by RAT, could be subjected to a worse punishment or more restrictive supervision due solely to that person’s race or socioeconomic status.

Third- The tool utilized by those probation and parole officers is mindlessly dependent upon data that are directly correlated with the glaring racial disparities that irrefutably exist throughout the criminal (so-called) justice system.

Enough from me. Let’s hear what the experts have to say.

Mark Houldin, a prominent attorney, policy consultant, and former policy director at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, states unequivocally, “The new proposal from the Commission is baffling. Instead of fixing the problematic and biased tool they created, like the independent evaluators from Carnegie Mellon advised, the Commission suggested using a second risk assessment on top of theirs. This proposal has no sound basis in policy, law, or science, and it exponentially increases the risk of errors at sentencing. The entire point of the legislation directing the Commission to make a proposal was to reduce bias and mass incarceration, but they sadly seem intent on avoiding this goal.”

Hannah Sassaman, a Soros Justice Fellow focusing on risk assessment who also serves as Policy Director at the Media Mobilizing Project, clearly points out that “The State Sentencing Commission has heard from hundreds of Pennsylvanians- survivors of harm and survivors of mass incarceration- as well as seasoned data scientists and attorneys for many years. What families impacted by harm and mass incarceration deserve is individualized sentencing, not ‘justice’ by numbers. The most recent plan by the Commission would have low and high risk people profiled not just by its own tool but by dozens of risk assessments meant for probation and parole, many of which heavily weigh factors correlated with race and poverty. We need to scrap this tool, and the legislature should proceed now to remove the misguided mandate for the Commission to build risk assessment for sentencing in Pennsylvania.”

So what’s the solution to this RAT infestation? It’s a one-two punch solution. One- Find out who your state senator and state representative are and ask him/her/them to oppose this RAT proposal. You can find out your senator and representative’s name and phone number by calling the Committee of Seventy at 215-557-3600.

Two- Attend the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission’s public hearing on August 20 at 1:30 in room 304 of the Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Criminal Center, 1301 Filbert Street. And if you want to express your opposition by testifying at the hearing, you can. But you first must immediately contact the Commission at (814) 863-5729 and follow its rules regarding testifying.

And you must do so before the RAT bites you, bites Black people, bites poor people, and eventually throws us all in jail.

Michael Coard can be followed on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and at His “Radio Courtroom” show can be heard on WURD 96.1FM and his “TV Courtroom” show can be seen on PhillyCam/Verizon/Comcast.

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