August 23, 2019
Statement from JustLeadershipUSA’s Philadelphia Campaign Coordinator Reuben Jones On Risk Assessments Considered by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing
JustLeadershipUSA unequivocally opposes any and all racist Risk Assessment Tools (RATs) being considered by the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission. This risk assessment tool is trained on data that is racist at its root – Philadelphia, incarcerates 8.9 Black men to every 1 caucasian person and in Pennsylvania 3 Latinx men to every 1 caucasian person – the second highest rate in the United States. We must not increase that ratio by using racially biased risk assessment tools. According to the data points used to calculate risk in Dr. Berk’s RAT for sentencing in Pennsylvania, people are considered high risk based on static data like family history, age at the time of arrest, previous arrests, associations, and place of residence. JLUSA opposes RATs at every stage of the criminal legal system. We recognize that a determined community driven movement strengthened by the leadership of directly impacted people has transformed the fight for justice in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, and our resolve continues to strengthen.
In light of the progress our movement has made on jail closures, bail reform, parole and probation reform; and building a base of impacted leaders to take these issues on — the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing is attempting to silence the voices of directly impacted people. By even considering the use of RATs during sentencing, the Commission is ignoring the input of directly impacted people and defaulting yet again to ineffective “reforms” that just perpetuate punishment based on faulty science and racially biased data. The consideration of RATs are an insult to the gains of our movement for justice and decarceration and should not even be up for discussion by the State.
In July, twenty seven leading criminal justice researchers associated with MIT denounced the use of risk assessments. The letter referenced decades of research demonstrating that for the same conduct, Black and Latinx people are more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to harsher punishments than their white counterparts. They also underscored the fact that Black and brown people “are treated more harshly than similarly situated white people at each stage of the legal system, which results in serious distortions in the data used to develop risk assessment tools.” In fact, Black people are more likely to be convicted and sentenced to incarceration. Researchers also found that since RATS incorporate distorted data, there is no way to avoid distorted results and unjust outcomes for which there are no technical fixes. “There have been attempts to solve this problem on the back end by mitigating outcome disparities in risk assessment predictions, but they overlook and do not address the fundamental distortions …”
The Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission will gather public input in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg – and they plan to name new Commission members in October. Advocates have been organizing and testifying to the current commission members, many of whom, along with elected officials, have serious concerns about the tool after reviewing research and listening to the facts and wisdom brought forth by directly impacted people. JLUSA calls upon the commission to end this entire process and put a halt to the RAT. Moving forward, especially with a brand new commission, would be unfair for advocates and ignore their opposition to the use of RATs.
We continue to applaud Senator Sharif Street for filing an appeal to halt the planned reconstitution of the Commission in October, and for introducing legislation to repeal the mandate on the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing to develop a pre-sentencing risk assessment tool.
Risk assessments do not predict future behavior, harm or violence. They do not protect public safety. Risk assessment tools serve only to perpetuate reincarceration. According to the criteria for risk for recidivism based on a risk assessment algorithm, I would have recidivated years ago but instead, I have been home for 17 years without any infractions, violations, or recidivism. risk assessment tool would have incorrectly assessed my future and I would still be incarcerated – an injustice that is a reality for far too many others who are subjected to these harmful tools.
Thousands of Pennsylvaniana will be denied opportunity if the RAT is implemented.