In State v. Loomis (2016), the Wisconsin Supreme Court addressed the issue of presentencing investigation reports and how they ought to be treated in regards to sentencing criminals. Presentencing investigations reports are documents that provide offender’s background information to sentencing courts and calculate the likelihood of individuals with the offender’s background to commit another crime using metric data. Eric Loomis was charged with five criminal counts in 2013 in relation to a drive-by shooting committed in La Crosse, Wisconsin. He later pled to two lesser charges of attempting to flee a traffic officer and operating a motor vehicle without the owner’s consent. As sentencing drew closer, a Wisconsin Department of Corrections officer provided a presentencing investigation report that included additional data – a COMPAS risk assessment. COMPAS assessments are used to estimate the offenders risk of recidivism rate, data that is based both on information from the offender’s criminal history and an interview with said offender. However, COMPAS is tied to a trademark and the actual process behind the formula is therefore a trade secret unknown to all but the company. The court referred to the COMPAS assessment as part of the basis for their sentencing of Loomis for six years of prison and five years of extended supervision.
Loomis appealed and argued that the court’s usage of COMPAS violated his due process rights because of the fact that the process behind the formula that generates the reports is a trade secred; as a result of the court using the COMPAS assessment, they infringed upon Loomis’ right to an individualized sentence and Loomis’ right to be sentenced based on accurate information. An argument on based on due process grounds that the court’s consideration of gender at sentencing (since part of the risk assessment was known to include gender) was unconstitutional. His initial post-conviction was denied, and the case was referred to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling, rejecting the due process arguments put forth by Loomis. They argued that sufficient evidence was not provided by Loomis to suggest that the sentencing court had considered gender; also, the court said that since COMPAS only uses publicly available data and data provided by the defendant, Loomis could have theoretically denied and/or verified any information that was used in the report. While the court did acknowledge the importance of individualized sentencing (and that COMPAS only provides aggregate data on recidivism risks for groups similar to the offender rather than that particular person), they stressed that such reports ought not be the sole basis for a sentencing decision and that they should be used with caution. The court also made five warnings regarding COMPAS that essentially cast doubt upon the reliability and accuracy of the reports, calling into question whether they should be considered at all in the first place.
If they deem it necessary to stress how narrow the application for presentencing investigations ought to be, shouldn’t they be out of the question to consider altogether? If they indeed do only use publicly available data and interviews from the offenders, shouldn’t this information alone be enough by which to sentence individuals rather than including an aggregate report about the general likelihood that someone similar to the offender will commit another crime? Such reports encourage generalizing the sentencing process, and it seems that there was a lot of credence behind Loomis’ argument that such reports do just that – discourage individualized sentencing and lump offenders into general categories without considering the facts unique to this case. While it is good that the Court included warnings making clear the dangers of using such processes as COMPAS, it might have been even better to require courts not to use such presentencing investigations in the first place until we understand how they work.
State v. Loomis. (2016). Retrieved April 08, 2017, from http://harvardlawreview.org/2017/03/state-v-loomis/