The United States is without question the biggest jailer. The United States locks up more men and women than any other country. With the overcrowding of prisons, the U.S. is trying to figure out how to decrease the inmate population and the whopping $74 billion spent each year on prisons.
With the federal government and states looking to use secretive questionnaires to determine the length of sentences and who should be paroled, many are seeing this move as a means of discriminating against Blacks and the poor. Some are calling these questionnaires unreliable.
From Atlanta Blackstar:
“These questionnaires, used in states like Texas, California, Florida and Arkansas, ask defendants more than 100 questions in some cases, all with the intent of figuring out how likely this person is to commit more crimes, according to a lengthy report on the use of the surveys by the Associated Press. The AP said the questionnaires are often clouded in secrecy so that government officials can protect themselves from being deemed responsible if a defendant commits a heinous crime after being let out on parole.”
Questions involving ones past history of employment, education, income, family, and arrest record plays a pivotal role in deciding on parole. However, when the questionnaires are given to those who are poorly educated, the likelihood of early release isnt foreseeable, and the scoring system may keep them locked up. In addition to this, these questionnaires hurt defendants who will return to crime-ridden neighborhoods.
While this new method is suppose to help probation and parole officers, it can be convoluted. Showing support for these questionnaires, Adam Gelb, the Director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts said, “It is a vast improvement over the decision-making process of 20, 30 years ago when parole boards and the courts didn’t have any statistical information to base their decisions on.”
Legislation has been introduced to Congress to use these questionnaires in the federal prison system. However, Attorney General Eric Holder has spoken out against judges using this data in sentencing.
“Basing a sentence on something other than the conduct of the person involved and the person’s record, you’re looking, for instance, at factors like the person’s education level, what neighborhood the person comes from, said Holder. They’re using this as a predictor of how likely this person as an individual is going to be a recidivist. I’m not at all certain that I’m comfortable with that … I think the result is fundamental unfairness.”
Studies have shown that Black and brown defendants are treated more harshly if its discovered that they have not had a steady job. In many cases, it appears to be a two-tiered system of sentencing.
Because many states are putting huge stock in these questionnaires, there is nothing full-proof about the answers. Inmates can lie on these questionnaires and then people are back at the drawing board. While the questionnaires are designed to reduce prison population, the question remains: who will be on the short-end of the stick?