Jennifer L. Skeem is a psychologist who writes and teaches about the intersection between behavioral science and criminal justice. Her research is designed to inform legal decision-making about juveniles and adults with emotional and behavioral problems. Specific topics include improving outcomes for justice-involved people with mental illness, understanding psychopathic personality disorder, and promoting prosocial behavior among juveniles at high risk for violence. Skeem’s current work addresses a recent surge of interest in the use of risk assessment to inform criminal sentencing—including how this practice may affect racial and economic disparities in imprisonment.
Professor Skeem is an author of over 150 articles and chapters and editor of 2 books—including Applying Social Science to Reduce Violent Offending, which won the American Psychological Association's Division 41 Book Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Psychology and Law. Skeem is past President of the American Psychology-Law Society, and member of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Mandated Community Treatment. She has served on advisory boards for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, U.S. Administrative Office of the Courts, and U.S. Sentencing Commission. Prior to arriving at Berkeley in 2014, she was a member of the faculty at the University of California, Irvine.
- Professor, Goldman School of Public Policy
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Areas of Expertise
- Criminal Justice
- Children, Youth and Families
- Psychology and Law
- Risk Reduction
- Mental Health
Last updated on 09/19/2018
GSPP Working Paper (November 2015)
One way to unwind mass incarceration without compromising public safety is to use risk assessment instruments in sentencing and corrections. These instruments figure prominently in current reforms, but controversy has begun to swirl around their use. The principal concern is that benefits in crime control will be offset by costs in social justice — a disparate and adverse effect on racial minorities and the poor. Based on a sample of 34,794 federal offenders, we empirically examine the relationships among race (Black vs. White), actuarial risk assessment (the Post Conviction Risk Assessment [PCRA]), and re-arrest (for any/violent crime). First, application of well-established principles of psychological science revealed no real evidence of test bias for the PCRA — the instrument strongly predicts re-arrest for both Black and White offenders and a given score has essentially the same meaning — i.e., same probability of recidivism — across groups. Second, Black offenders obtain modestly higher average scores on the PCRA than White offenders (d = .43; appx. 27% non-overlap in groups’ scores). So some applications of the PCRA could create disparate impact — which is defined by moral rather than empirical criteria. Third, most (69%) of the racial difference in PCRA scores is attributable to criminal history — which strongly predicts recidivism for both groups and is embedded in sentencing guidelines. Finally, criminal history is not a proxy for race — instead, it fully mediates the otherwise weak relationship between race and re-arrest. Data may be more helpful than rhetoric, if the goal is to improve practice at this opportune moment in history.
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Skeem, Jennifer L. and Kennealy, Patrick and Monahan, John and Peterson, Jillian and Appelbaum, Paul S., “Psychosis Uncommonly and Inconsistently Precedes Violence Among High-Risk Individuals” (September 22, 2015).
A small group of individuals with mental illness is repeatedly involved in violence. Little is known about how often and how consistently these high-risk individuals experience delusions or hallucinations just before a violent incident. To address these questions, data from the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study was used to identify 305 violent incidents associated with 100 former inpatients with repeated violence (representing 50% of incidents and 9% of participants), and test whether psychosis-preceded incidents cluster within individuals. Results indicated that (a) psychosis immediately preceded 12% of incidents, (b) individuals were “fairly” consistent in their violence type (ICC = .42), and (c) those with exclusively “non-psychosis-preceded” violence (80%) could be distinguished from a small group who also had some psychosis-preceded violence (20%). These findings suggest that psychosis sometimes foreshadows violence for a fraction of high-risk individuals, but violence prevention efforts should also target factors like anger control and social deviance.
Monahan, John and Skeem, Jennifer L., Risk Assessment in Criminal Sentencing (September 17, 2015). Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, Forthcoming; Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper, No. 53.
The past several years have seen a surge of interest in using risk assessment in criminal sentencing, both to reduce recidivism by incapacitating or treating high-risk offenders and to reduce prison populations by diverting low-risk offenders from prison. We begin by sketching jurisprudential theories of sentencing, distinguishing those that rely on risk assessment from those that preclude it. We then characterize and illustrate the varying roles that risk assessment may play in the sentencing process. We clarify questions regarding the various meanings of “risk” in sentencing and the appropriate time to assess the risk of convicted offenders. We conclude by addressing four principal problems confronting risk assessment in sentencing: conflating risk and blame, barring individual inferences based on group data, failing adequately to distinguish risk assessment from risk reduction, and ignoring whether, and if so, how, the use of risk assessment in sentencing affects racial and economic disparities in imprisonment.
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Skeem, Jennifer L. and Scott, Elizabeth S. and Mulvey, Edward p, “Justice Policy Reform for High-Risk Juveniles: Using Science to Achieve Large-Scale Crime Reduction” (January 28, 2014). Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, Forthcoming; Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-375.
After a distinctly punitive era, a period of remarkable reform in juvenile crime regulation has begun. Practical urgency has fueled interest in both crime reduction and research on the prediction and malleability of criminal behavior. In this rapidly changing context, high-risk youth - the small proportion of the population where crime is concentrated - present a conundrum. Research indicates that these are precisely the individuals to intensively treat to maximize crime reduction, but there are both real and imagined barriers to doing so. Institutional placement or criminal court processing can exclude these youths from interventions that would better protect public safety. In this article, we synthesize relevant research to help resolve this challenge in a manner that is consistent with the law’s core principles. In our view, adolescence offers unique opportunities for risk reduction that could (with modifications) be realized in the juvenile justice system in cooperation with other social institutions.
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Monahan, John and Skeem, Jennifer L., “Risk Redux: The Resurgence of Risk Assessment in Criminal Sanctioning” (October 28, 2013). Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2013-36.
After almost four decades of “just deserts,” the past several years have seen a remarkable resurgence of risk assessment as an essential component of criminal sanctioning. In this article, we review current practice in the incorporation of risk assessment into the sanctioning systems of several illustrative states, and describe the major dimensions on which state practices differ. We then elaborate the various meanings ascribed to the foundational concept of “risk” in criminal sanctioning, and contrast “risk” with what are now often called “criminogenic needs,” the fulfillment of which ostensibly reduce an offender’s level of “risk.” Finally, we address the choice of an approach to risk assessment in sentencing, particularly in the resource-starved state of current correctional practice.
Published Version (471KB)
Skeem, Jennifer L. and Monahan, John, “Current Directions in Violence Risk Assessment” (March 23, 2011). Current Directions in Psychological Science, Forthcoming ; Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2011-13.
A variety of instruments have been published over recent years that improve clinicians’ ability to forecast the likelihood that an individual will behave violently. Increasingly, these instruments are being applied in response to laws that require specialized risk assessments. In this article, we present a framework that goes beyond the “clinical” and “actuarial” dichotomy to describe a continuum of structured approaches to risk assessment. Despite differences among them, there is little evidence that one validated instrument predicts violence better than another. We believe that these group-based instruments are useful for assessing an individual’s risk, and that an instrument should be chosen based on an evaluation’s purpose (i.e., risk assessment vs. risk reduction). The time is ripe to shift attention from predicting violence to understanding its causes and preventing its (re)occurrence.
Published Version (284KB)