Part of the controversy over the use of risk assessment tools goes to the dual purpose of punishment. We punish for both utilitarian and retributive purposes. The practical reasons to punish are to (1) deter other potential wrongdoers with the example, (2) incapacitate the individual wrongdoer, at least for a time, and (3) hopefully rehabilitate the individual. Risk assessment informs us on the latter two points.
The retributive purpose is to punish evildoers because they deserve it, period.
The two philosophies of punishment are in harmony when it comes to punishing repeaters more severely than first-timers. Recidivism is the single strongest predictor of repeating again, and the repeaters deserve more punishment as a matter of simple justice. For other factors, though, things get more complicated. Is it moral to punish someone more severely due to a "risk factor" beyond his control?
But the business of risk assessment isn't all common sense. Sometimes there are surprises. The 1993 study that formed the basis of a widely used tool known as the VRAG, for instance, is where researchers determined that in a sample of offenders who'd been locked up for serious violent crimes, those whose victims had been women were less likely to reoffend than those whose victims were men. The study also found that murderers were less likely to commit more crime upon release than people who'd merely injured their victims.
Cinelli's record on [risk assessment factors] was almost cartoonishly alarming. He was a heroin user starting at the age of 15 and had committed multiple armed robberies by the time of his arrest in 1976. He also tried to escape from prison, not once but twice, robbing a jewelry store and shooting a security guard the first time and stealing a gun from a sheriff the second. According to the state's review of the case, COMPAS, the tool now used by the Massachusetts parole board, would have assigned him a risk level of nine out of ten.
The factors in Cinelli's case we can and should use without hesitation. The surprising factors in the second paragraph illustrate the hazards of defining the factors. A closer look reveals that both are correlated with other factors.
"It is not a theory of crime," said VRAG creator Vernon Quinsey, a psychologist at Queens University in Canada. The factors on the questionnaire, he explained, aren't necessarily causes of criminal behavior: They just match certain patterns. "Some of the offenders we followed had killed their wives. Most of these guys are not career criminals and they have relatively low recidivism rates," he said. "Some of the offenders were homosexual pedophiles -- these guys have relatively high recidivism rates. These observations likely explain why murder is good and male victims bad in terms of recidivism."
In the case of the male victim factor, it is probably not correct to state it in terms of "those whose victims were men." The pedophiles' victims were boys.
Applying risk assessment requires caution both from a validity standpoint and a morality standpoint. A factor should not be used if its effect disappears when you control for another more salient factor. The retributive aspect of punishment should also be kept in mind. Even if murderers as a group did have lower recidivism than batterers after correcting for the prior criminal record factor, it would still be wrong to let them out earlier.