February 19, 2018
Criminal Courts

Danger Ahead

Risk Assessment and the Future of Bail Reform

Logan Koepke and David Robinson


In the last five years, legislators in all fifty states have made changes to their pretrial justice systems. Reform efforts aim to shrink jails by incarcerating fewer people— particularly poor, low-risk defendants and racial minorities. Many jurisdictions are embracing pretrial risk assessment instruments—statistical tools that use historical data to forecast which defendants can safely be released—as a centerpiece of reform. Now, many are questioning the extent to which pretrial risk assessment instruments actually serve reform goals. Existing scholarship and debate centers on how the instruments themselves may reinforce racial disparities and on how their opaque algorithms may frustrate due process interests.

This Article highlights three underlying challenges that have yet to receive the attention they require. First, today’s risk assessment tools lead to what we term “zombie predictions.” That is, predictive models trained on data from older bail regimes are blind to the risk- reducing benefits of recent bail reforms. This may cause predictions that systematically overestimate risk. Second, “decision-making frameworks” that mediate the court system’s use of risk estimates embody crucial moral judgments, yet currently escape appropriate public scrutiny. Third, in the long-term, these tools risk giving an imprimatur of scientific objectivity to ill-defined concepts of “dangerousness,” may entrench the Supreme Court’s historically recent blessing of preventive detention for dangerousness, and could pave the way for an increase in preventive detention.

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