Thinking About Criminal History

Melissa Hamilton (University of Houston Law Center) has posted Back to the Future: The Influence of Criminal History on Risk Assessment (Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law (Forthcoming)) on SSRN.

Here is the abstract:

Evidence-based practices providing an empirical basis for predicting recidivism risk have become a primary focus across criminal justice decision points. Criminal history measures are the most common and heavily weighted factors in risk assessment tools, yet is such substantial reliance fully justified? The empirical and normative values placed on criminal history enjoy such commendation by criminal justice officials, practitioners, and the public that these practices are rarely questioned. This paper fills the gap by introducing and exploring various issues from legal, scientific, and pragmatic perspectives.

As a general rule, a common assumption is that past behavior dictates an individual’s likely future conduct. This axiom is often applied to criminal behavior, more specifically, in that prior offending is considered a primary driver to predict future recidivism. Criminal justice officials have a long history of formally and informally incorporating risk judgments into a variety of criminal justice decisions, ranging from bail, sentencing, parole, supervisory conditions, and programming. A more contemporary addendum represents empirically informed risk assessment practices that integrate actuarial tools and/or structured professional judgments. Various criminal history measures pervade these newer evidence-based practices as well. Instead of presuming the value and significance of prior crimes in judging future recidivism risk, this Article raises and critically analyzes certain unexpected consequences resulting from the significant reliance upon criminal history in risk assessment judgments. Among the more novel issues addressed include: (1) creating a ratchet effect whereby the same criminal history event can be counted numerous times; (2) resulting in informal, three-strikes types of penalties; (3) counting nonadjudicated criminal behaviors and acquitted conduct; (4) proportionality of punishment; (5) disciplining hypothetical future crime; (6) punishing status; and (7) inadequately accounting for the age-crime curve. In the end, criminal history has a role to play in future risk judgments, but these issues represent unanticipated outcomes that deserve attention.

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