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Sentencing court didn’t err in its interpretation or application of COMPAS report

State v. Jordan John Samsa, 2015 WI App 6; case activity

The circuit court did not erroneously exercise its discretion in using the criminogenic needs section of the COMPAS assessment report, which identifies areas in which the offender needs correctional or community intervention, as an indicator of Samsa’s danger to the community.

Samsa pleaded guilty to sexual assault and a PSI was prepared. The PSI recommended Samsa be placed on probation and given condition time. A report of a COMPAS assessment was appended to the PSI. The COMPAS report’s section dealing with “criminogenic” needs (COMPAS-speak for treatment and program needs) scored Samsa as being high on some areas but low on others. In a separate section expressly dealing with recidivism, the COMPAS report rated Samsa’s risk to reoffend as low. But because of the high scores on some of the “criminogenic” needs items the circuit court discounted the PSI’s recommendation for probation, concluded Samsa was “a poor risk” and would reoffend, and imposed the maximum prison sentence. (¶¶2-6, 13).

Samsa argues the circuit court misused the COMPAS’s treatment and program needs assessment by treating it as a straight-forward assessment of Samsa’s risk to reoffend, but the court of appeals finds no error:

¶11      Samsa asserts the court could not permissibly rely on the COMPAS need assessment scores to determine he was a high risk despite the COMPAS assessment that he presented a low risk of reoffense. We disagree. Samsa’s argument is essentially that a sentencing court’s discretion must yield to the COMPAS actuarial assessment. That is an untenable position.

¶12      At sentencing, the circuit court addressed the requisite sentencing objectives and also explained it disagreed with the COMPAS’s and DOC agent’s risk assessment. ….

¶13      Samsa’s risk of violent or nonviolent reoffense was determined to be low by the COMPAS assessment. However, the circuit court ultimately rejected that conclusion, and it was perfectly within the court’s discretion to do so. The COMPAS is merely one tool available to a court at the time of sentencing and a court is free to rely on portions of the assessment while rejecting other portions. Samsa’s assertion that a sentencing court should be prohibited from considering criminogenic needs when assessing a defendant’s risk of reoffense runs contrary to the principle that sentencing courts are afforded substantial discretion. …

Saying that Samsa is “essentially” making a certain argument is a sign that Samsa may be arguing something different. Sure enough, Samsa’s briefs show he is not “essentially” arguing that “a sentencing court’s discretion must yield to the COMPAS actuarial assessment,” which would indeed be an untenable argument. (¶11). Rather, Samsa argues the sentencing court erred by equating high scores on the treatment needs assessment with a high risk to reoffend. (The court of appeals actually summarizes Samsa’s argument more accurately in the course of rejecting Samsa’s fall-back new-factor argument by saying “[a]t the time of sentencing, the [sentencing] court was aware of the distinction between criminogenic needs and risk assessments.” (¶15 (emphasis added)).

More particularly, Samsa argues that conflating the needs assessment scores with a risk assessment is a mistake because COMPAS has a separate risk-assessment section that takes the needs assessment into account and, more importantly here, the “highly probable” and “probable” scores on various items of the treatment needs assessment merely indicate the areas in which it is probable or highly probable Samsa will need programming or treatment. Thus, the high probabilities expressed in the needs assessment can’t be metamorphosed into surrogate probabilities to estimate the risk of future criminal behavior; yet, Samsa says, that is just what the sentencing court did, despite the COMPAS’s own warning against “misinterpreting” its results. (¶10).

The judge’s remarks at the sentencing hearing certainly support Samsa’s argument, for the judge said he was “at a loss to figure out this agent’s recommendations” given the “high” and “highly probable” scores on the needs assessment. (¶5). At the postconviction hearing the judge clarified or refined his thinking somewhat, saying that he read the COMPAS material to allow using the needs assessment to predict criminal behavior because the material “identifies criminogenic needs specific to that offender which are most likely to affect future criminal behavior.” (¶12). Even if this isn’t as bad a misinterpretation of the COMPAS as occurred at the time of sentencing, it’s still the case that the mere existence of treatment and program needs, and the fact those are the needs “most likely to affect future behavior,” doesn’t automatically translate into high risk deserving of the maximum sentence.

Utlimately, however, Samsa’s argument founders due to the expansive grant of discretion afforded to sentencing judges and the almost abjectly deferential appellate review given to sentencing decisions. A sentencing judge is free to disagree with the COMPAS developers about what the existence of “criminogenic” needs means for assessing future risk, and the circuit court finally said at the postconviction hearing that it thought the COMPAS is “not even using the right test” for risk assessment. (¶12). That was just enough to convince the court of appeals the circuit court had managed to cross to the right side  of the line that separates a misunderstanding of what COMPAS actually does from an independent conclusion about how the existence of treatment needs translates into risk.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Dana Smetana December 18, 2014, 7:51 am

    Well this is a blatant misuse of COMPAS and what it was designed for. As Wisconsin rolls out its EBDM initiative, this case has just set up a roadblock for all of us that have worked so hard for a more fair and rational system. This case says that a Judge can misuse and misinterpret the COMPAS because he is a Judge. What about what the client was told when he completed the COMPAS? Was he told to be honest so that they could correctly address his needs on supervision ? Was he told, oh by the way, if you are honest about your needs the Judge is allowed to misuse the COMPAS and send you to prison for the maximum time because you indicated you had lots of needs? If the Judge does not agree with the COMPAS he should not be able to pick and choose pieces of it to bolster his opinion. There is no validity to this. The Northpoint people would not support its use in this regard. The question now becomes where do we go from here? Do we continue to allow clients to take a risk assessment prior to sentencing if the Judge is free to manipulate its findings to fit his or her needs.

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