Everyone has heard of parole, but very people understand just how an inmate’s early release is decided.

In Michigan, parole is determined with the use of a risk assessment tool called COMPAS. Using a number of criteria, this instrument allows prison officials to determine the probability of a potential parolee’s return to the big house. Some of these factors include employment history, financial standing, whether or not the generations before them have a history of imprisonment, and their geographic location upon their release.

However, there are some concerns that this system is flawed because it essentially relies more on the a person’s financial stability rather than behavior. For example, a poor kid could get sent to prison for an offense at the same time a wealthy kid gets sent in for the same or a similar offense. Regardless of the poor kid's good behavior in prison, based on the COMPAS questionnaire, the wealthy kid, despite his or her behavior, will always get paroled first.

"I think we need to find a way to use evidence to inform our criminal justice system without building in these discriminatory bases,” said Sonja B. Starr, professor of law at the University of Michigan.

Starr says the process of using assessment tools in deciding who gets paroled is not an accurate method for determining risk. She believes Michigan should return to using courts and parole boards in making the decision for a prisoner’s early release because it is the only way to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system.

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