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date: 24 January 2021

Risk, Actuarialism, and Punishmentlocked

  • Hazel KemshallHazel KemshallSchool of Applied Social Sciences, De Montfort University

Summary

Risk is a pervasive feature of contemporary life, and has become a key feature of penal policy, systems of punishment, and criminal justice services across a number of the Anglophone jurisdictions. Risk as an approach to calculating the probability of “danger” or “hazard” has its roots in the mercantile trade of the 16th century, growing in significance over the intervening centuries until it pervades both the social and economic spheres of everyday life. Actuarialism, that is the method of statistically calculating and aggregating risk data, has similar roots, steeped in the probability calculations of the insurance industry with 20th-century extension into the arenas of social welfare and penality. Within criminal justice one of the first risk assessment tools was the parole predictor designed by Burgess in 1928. Since then we have seen a burgeoning of risk assessment tools and actuarial risk practices across the penal realm, although the extent to which penality is totally risk based is disputed. Claims for a New Penology centered on risk have been much debated, and empirical evidence would tend toward more cautious claims for such a significant paradigm shift.

Prevention and responsibilization are often seen as core themes within risk-focused penality. Risk assessment is used not only to assess and predict future offending of current criminals, but also to enable early identification of future criminals, “high crime” areas, and those in need of early interventions. The ethics, accuracy, and moral justification for such preventive strategies have been extensively debated, with concerns expressed about negative and discriminatory profiling; net-widening; over targeting of minority groups especially for selective incarceration; and more recently criticisms of risk-based pre-emption or “pre-crime” targeting, particularly of ethnic minorities. Responsibilization refers to the techniques of actuarial practices used to make persons responsible for their own risk management, and for their own risk decisions throughout the life course. In respect of offenders this is best expressed through corrective programs focused on “right thinking” and re-moralizing offenders toward more desirable social ends. Those offenders who are “ripe for re-moralization” and who present a level of risk that can be managed within the community can avoid custody or extended sentencing. Those who are not, and who present the highest levels of risk, are justifiably selected for risk-based custodial sentences. Such decision-making not only requires high levels of predictive accuracy, but is also fraught with severe ethical challenges and moral choices, not least about the desired balance between risks, rights, and freedoms.

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