“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” ― Isaac Asimov
The Republicans are set to vote on an RNC resolution to reduce mass incarceration. The measure asks for “reforms for nonviolent offenders at the state and federal level” and urges “state legislators and Congress to…provide substance abuse treatment to addicts, emphasize work and education, and implement policies that cut costs while obtaining better outcomes.”
Finally, Democrats may say, Republicans have woken up to mass incarceration as a 21st-century civil-rights struggle, joining what has for years been a progressive fight. Not so fast. If the Republican Party makes criminal justice reform a priority, they’ll be the first major party to do so, ever. Democrats need to catch up. Adding ending mass incarceration to their own platform would mark a significant step, boldly breaking with their past politics.
Criminal justice reform should be a simple step for a party that believes in progress, equality, and inclusion. It was the Democrats who fought for civil rights in the last century. If the Democrats do not raise their voice, history will record that it was the Republicans who led the civil-rights struggle in this one.
Recent Democratic platforms haven’t merely been silent; they have actually called for policies creating more imprisonment, and then applauded the result. Mentions of progressive alternatives are hard to find.
Scores like this — known as risk assessments — are increasingly common in courtrooms across the nation. They are used to inform decisions about who can be set free at every stage of the criminal justice system, from assigning bond amounts — as is the case in Fort Lauderdale — to even more fundamental decisions about defendants’ freedom. In Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, the results of such assessments are given to judges during criminal sentencing.
Rating a defendant’s risk of future crime is often done in conjunction with an evaluation of a defendant’s rehabilitation needs. The Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections now encourages the use of such combined assessments at every stage of the criminal justice process. And a landmark sentencing reform bill currently pending in Congress would mandate the use of such assessments in federal prisons.
In 2014, then U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder warned that the risk scores might be injecting bias into the courts. He called for the U.S. Sentencing Commission to study their use. “Although these measures were crafted with the best of intentions, I am concerned that they inadvertently undermine our efforts to ensure individualized and equal justice,” he said, adding, “they may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities that are already far too common in our criminal justice system and in our society.”
The sentencing commission did not, however, launch a study of risk scores. So ProPublica did, as part of a larger examination of the powerful, largely hidden effect of algorithms in American life.