Criminal sentences should be based on the nature of the crime a defendant commits, not on data intended to predict the risk of future offenses, Attorney General Eric Holder told the U.S. Sentencing Commission on Friday. In a letter to the Sentencing Commission, the Justice Department said the use of statistical analysis in many industries — and in the criminal justice system — has exploded since the book "Moneyball" explained how the Oakland Athletics used masses of data to recruit new players, based on predictions of how they would perform.
Risk assessment can be valuable, the letter said, in deciding when to release a prison inmate on parole. And it can be useful in evaluating which inmates will need the most attention in helping them readjust to the community. But criminal sentences, it said, should be based primarily on the offender's past conduct and the nature and circumstances of the crime.
"They should not be based on unchangeable factors that a person cannot control, or on the possibility of a future crime that has not taken place. Equal justice can only mean individualized justice, with charges, convictions, and sentences befitting the conduct of each defendant," Holder told the Commission. Basing sentences on factors such as education level, employment history, family circumstances, and age will adversely affect offenders from poor communities already struggling with social problems, the letter said. Some states have begun to use risk assessments in sentencing, and bills are pending in Congress that would require it in the federal courts.
First published August 1 2014, 8:24 AM
Pete Williams is an NBC News correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He has been covering the Justice Department and the U.S. Supreme Court since March 1993. Williams was also a key reporter on the Microsoft anti-trust trial and Judge Jackson's decision.
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Prior to joining NBC, Williams served as a press official on Capitol Hill for many years. In 1986 he joined the Washington, D.C. staff of then Congressman Dick Cheney as press secretary and a legislative assistant. In 1989, when Cheney was named Assistant Secretary of Defense, Williams was appointed Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. While in that position, Williams was named Government Communicator of the Year in 1991 by the National Association of Government Communicators.
A native of Casper, Wyo. and a 1974 graduate of Stanford University, Williams was a reporter and news director at KTWO-TV and Radio in Casper from 1974 to 1985. Working with the Radio-Television News Directors Association, for which he served as a member of its board of directors, he successfully lobbied the Wyoming Supreme Court to permit broadcast coverage of its proceedings and twice sued Wyoming judges over pre-trial exclusion of reporters from the courtroom. For these efforts, he received a First Amendment Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.