Pretrial Risk Assessment – Perpetuating or Disrupting Racial Bias?

Pretrial Justice Institute guest blog by Marie VanNostrand, Ph.D., Justice Project Manager, Luminosity

Several years ago I coined the term ‘resource-based vs. risk-based’ to describe the two primary systems of pretrial release in our country. One system relies on a defendant’s financial resources to determine if they are released or detained pretrial; the other relies on that defendant’s risk of failing to appear in court and the danger they pose to the community.

Remarkably, the volume of evidence against a resource-based system has quietly accumulated for a century or longer. Yet, as the volume of evidence supporting a risk-based system has increased exponentially over the past five years, the concern over the potential for risk assessments to perpetuate racial bias has inexplicably begun to overshadow their benefits and to slow pretrial reform efforts. The concern that risk assessments can perpetuate the existing racial bias in our criminal justice system was raised to the national stage in 2014 by then Attorney General Eric Holder and, although I suspect unintentionally, has become a key argument against pretrial reform.

The question being debated is whether risk assessments perpetuate racial bias in our criminal justice system or if they reduce (not eliminate) that bias and actually disrupt the cycle of injustice. The answer is—both. Inarguably a poorly constructed risk assessment which relies on risk factors that are not race neutral can perpetuate racial bias. But I would argue that a risk assessment developed using scientifically rigorous research methods with a focus on race neutrality can ensure a risk assessment is free of predictive bias as is artfully discussed by Skeem and Lowenkamp… See full post here on