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DOJ Tweaks Risk Assessment Tool to Help Minority Prisoners

The Justice Department is attempt to reduce racial disparities in a tool it uses to assess a prisoner's risk of a return to crime, after scholars and justice advocates sought a change, NPR reports. DOJ plans to make tweaks that would significantly increase the number of Black and Hispanic prisoners who are eligible to take educational classes or work-life programs that could lead to an earlier release. The tool, known as Pattern, continues to overestimate the number of Black women who will in recidivate, compared to white women in prison. The latest effort to overhaul the troubled risk assessment algorithm is still unable to resolve other racial disparities, DOJ said. The department sent a report to Congress on Tuesday, pledging that it would continue to work "to ensure that racial disparities are reduced to the greatest extent possible."

NPR uncovered sloppy math mistakes and other flaws that put thousands of prisoners in the wrong risk category and treated them differently in part because of their ethnic backgrounds. The Justice Department will roll out a new version of Pattern early next month, which it said "will neither exacerbate nor solve these racial bias issues." The department said it was making other adjustments that could translate into a real difference for people of color in prison. The First Step Act, which passed with bipartisan majorities during the Trump administration, offers people in prison a path to early release, by earning time credits for performing work and taking educational classes behind bars. Only low- and minimum-risk prisoners are eligible for those programs. How the Bureau of Prisons assesses risk has major consequences for their lives and their release plans. In its report, DOJ said it would make no changes to how it evaluates violent recidivism risks, saying that measure provided an essential check for "public safety." Instead, the department shifted the boundaries between other risk levels for its general recidivism algorithm.


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