lady justice.

Computational Psychiatry for Precision Sentencing in Criminal Law

By Francis X. Shen

A core failing of the criminal justice system is its inability to individualize criminal sentences and tailor probation and parole to meet the unique profile of each offender.

As legal scholar, and now federal judge Stephanos Bibas has observed, “All too often … sentencing guidelines and statutes act as sledgehammers rather than scalpels.”

As a result, dangerous offenders may be released, while offenders who pose little risk to society are left behind bars. And recidivism is common — the U.S. has an astounding recidivism rate of 80% — in part because the current criminal justice system largely fails to address mental health challenges, which are heavily over-represented in the justice system.

Advances in computational psychiatry, such as the deep phenotyping methods explored in this symposium, offer clinicians newfound abilities to practice precision psychiatry. The idea behind precision psychiatry is both simple and elusive: treat individuals as individuals. Yet advancing such a program in practice is “very ambitious” because no two individual brains — and the experiences those brains have had over a lifetime — are the same.

Deep phenotyping offers the criminal justice system the tools to improve public safety, identify low-risk offenders, and modify decision-making to reduce recidivism. Computational psychiatry can lead to what can be described as precision sentencing.

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gavel.

How to Reduce Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System

By Caroline Hinnenkamp

Racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system are well documented –– people of color are disproportionately arrested, convicted, and incarcerated.

Diversion efforts –– so named for their approach, which is to divert individuals away from the court process and instead offer opportunities for rehabilitation –– risk perpetuating these same racially disparate trends. Particularly if diversion programs have eligibility constraints based on prior records, people of color are more likely to be denied entry, because they are arrested and convicted at a higher rate than their white counterparts.

Historically, prosecutors tended to justify these constraints as mechanisms used to gauge an applicant’s capacity for rehabilitation, with recidivism (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend) reduction as the central goal of diversion. Diversion was an alternative offered to the lucky few deemed “eligible” or “deserving,” with the implication being that reoffenders have a criminal disposition that is not amenable to rehabilitation.

But programs that use these screening methods tend to overlook the underlying facts and circumstances that might have brought about the applicant’s priors, such as implicit bias in law enforcement or the over-policing of specific communities. Without additional safeguards, the seemingly neutral constraint of “priors” fails to account for relevant pre-existing conditions, and risks barring entry to applicants who might otherwise benefit from diversion.

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alcatraz, san francisco

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Efforts to Release People in Custody

By Phebe Hong

The first death of a federal inmate from COVID-19 occurred on March 28, at a prison in Oakdale, Louisiana. The inmate had been incarcerated for 13 years for a nonviolent drug charge. At least four other infected inmates have died at the same institution.

The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on prisons and jails, where proper social distancing is nearly impossible to maintain.

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