Statewide sentencing initiative leaders visit

A state-wide legislative initiative made a stop in Warren Friday morning for a brief public hearing.

Eight years ago, the Pennsylvania General Assembly tasked the state’s Commission on Sentencing with developing a risk assessment instrument.

According to a policy overview for the tool from the Commission, the goal is to “evaluate the relative risk that an offender will reoffend” as well as identify cases where additional reporting and assessments will be necessary.

Another goal? Reducing incarceration rates by determining “appropriate candidates” for other sentencing options.

Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Commission on Sentencing, said that the Commission proposed an instrument back in April that was ultimately modified in September.

He said the intent of the tool is to “identify cases where the Commission recommends the court obtain additional information on a defendant prior to sentencing… so the court might be better informed.”

“(T)he risk assessment does not recommend a sentence to be imposed, but rather serves as a tool identifies individuals with risk profiles that are lower or higher than average,” the policy statement explains.

Information considered includes age, gender, number of prior convictions, current conviction offense type, multiple current convictions and prior juvenile adjudications aimed to result in a “empirically-based worksheet which uses factors that are relevant in predicting recidivism.”

The Commission acknowledges the categories are not “perfect predictors” but are “additional tools that may provide a more accurate assessment of an individual’s relative risk.”

Bergstrom said on Friday that the purpose of the hearings – of which Friday is the fifth and final – is “to receive comments from the public on the revised proposal or any alternative proposals.”

He said comment offered would be provided to the members of the Commission for consideration.

The Commission’s next meeting, Bergstrom said, is slated for March where the members will “have an opportunity to review the testimony received. I can tell you the commission has spent a lot of time, eight years, working on this.

He said he does “not anticipate” the Commission taking action on the proposal at the March meeting.

The only testimony offered was from Margaret Watts who testified that implementing the algorithm “eliminates human reasoning ability” and said it is “out of kilter” to assign a number to a person.

She said the tool is like assigning a grade to a person before they take a test.

“What hope does an individual have when reduced to a number?” she asked.

The Philadelphia Inquirer covered the public hearing held in Philadelphia earlier this week which drew similar criticism – but much more of it.

“Research has shown that this risk-assessment tool is not effective, but further fuels racial injustices,” State Rep. Stephen Kinsey, a Democrat representing parts of Germantown, told commission members, speaking on behalf of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus the Inquirer reported. “The initial mandate was to lower costs, mitigate over-incarceration, and divert those that deserve alternative forms of corrective action, such as substance-abuse-disorder treatment. To date, those ideals have not been met.”

The Inquirer report indicates that multiple representatives called for an overhaul of the condition’s mandate and reported that the adoption of a risk-assessment tool at sentencing is opposed by the Philadelphia Bar Association, the Pennsylvania ACLU, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, and the Defender Association.