Texas Parole Risk Assessment: What’s your number?

Like many States, Texas relies on a risk assessment analysis when deciding to release a particular inmate to parole. Although the State has broadly described the concepts and factors it relies on in creating its Risk Assessment Number, it keeps the actual methodologies used in a “Black Box” that leaves inmates, their families, and parole lawyers in the dark about how a potential parolee actually gets assessed and categorized.

Here’s a basic overview of the process:

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) creates its particular risk assessment by relying on two primary groups of personal data:

  1. Individual “static” factors for each inmate; and
  2. Individual “dynamic” factors for each inmate.

After using these factors to get a number range, the BPP then uses a third metric it calls the “Offense Severity Class” to create a “matrix.” The matrix numbers are combined to give inmates their final single-digit “Texas Parole Guidelines Score.” That score is the key number relied upon by parole boards when deciding on whether to release an inmate on parole.

I’ll try to break down this bureaucratic process as best I can so you will have a meaningful understanding of what the BPP is up to.

The Texas BPP Risk Assessment Tool

First – the dynamic and static factors that the BPP uses in risk assessment.

  1. Static Factors

Static factors refer to events in an inmate’s past that he has no control over and can’t change. Specifically it refers to relevant things that happened prior to sentencing on the conviction he’s trying to paroled out on. Here they are:

  • Age when first admitted into a corrections facility (juvie or adult)
  • whether this person has ever been revoked or adjudicated on a probation
  • prior prison trips or incarcerations
  • employment history, and
  • the type of offense he or she committed most recently

TDCJ does not tell us how these factors are weighted or how they use them to calculate an inmate’s risk of re-offending. However, we can take away a few key points. First, young offenders are doubly screwed, since early run-ins with law enforcement are given double weight. That’s because an offender who committed an offense early in life gets hit with two negative factors — he was both previously incarcerated and was young at the time of incarceration.

So under the static factors TDCJ implicitly favors a 42-year old guy with one prison trip when he was 36 over a 42-year-old guy with one prison trip at 18. Is that fair? No. But statistically speaking a person who goes to prison or jail at 18 is just more likely to re-offend. And if you’re a TDCJ inmate waiting for a parole decision, I’m sorry to say that you are, more than anything else, a statistic.

Additionally, employment history favors those who haven’t had run-ins with the law at an early age. Another ding against inmates who had legal trouble at early on in life.

2. Dynamic Factors

Dynamic factors refer to things that happen while the inmate is currently incarcerated. They include:

  • current age
  • gang membership
  • education, vocational training, and certifications received
  • prison disciplinary action, and
  • current prison custody level

Or, in other words, do you play by TDCJ’s rules? If yes, you’re more likely to be perceived as low or moderate risk. Obvious stuff here. What’s not obvious – how does BPP weigh these factors against the “static” factors? The actual math remains hidden in TDCJ’s Parole Black Box

Next the BPP does some addition.

You get a score on your static factors from 0-10, with a low number signifying low risk. You get a score on your dynamic factors from 0-9, with again a low number signifying low risk. These two numbers get added together to produce your “Score Assigned Risk Level.” 3 points or less means you’re low risk. 4-8 points is moderate risk. 9-15 points is high risk. Anything over 16 points . . . you ain’t getting out, my friend.

Step 2 – The “Offense Severity Ranking”

We aren’t done yet.

After BPP calculates the risk level score, they then look to whatever is your most serious offense for which you are currently incarcerated and assign you to an Offense Severity Class. They literally have a 64-page PDF document which lists ever statutory offense in Texas (including traffic tickets) and assigns it one of four categories:

  • “L” for low risk (eg traffic ticket, negligently abandoning your child)
  • “M” for moderate risk (eg given yourself an abortion, delivering more than 200 pounds of marijuana, or promoting prostitution)
  • “H” for high risk (eg possessing more than 400 grams of a controlled substance, delivering more than 2000 pounds of marijuana, arson, murder)
  • and “H+” for super high risk (eg arson to a business with people inside, burglary of a habitation with intent to commit a felony other than theft, capital murder, smuggling persons with likelihood of causing death).

Aside from the “H+” designations, do these categories feel a bit arbitrary to you? Nevertheless, these bureaucratic determinations are a key factor in creating an inmate’s final risk assessment number.

As an aside, if you want to see a jaw-dropping example of legislative mission creep in a State that prides itself on small government, follow this link to see just how many things the great State of Texas has made illegal.

The Parole Guidelines Score

Once all three data points are set — (1) dynamic factors, (2) static factors, and (3) offense severity class — then BPP creates the actual Texas Parole Guideline Score. Here’s what their “matrix” looks like:

MALE
FEMALE
Risk Level
Risk Level
OFFENSE SEVERITY CLASS
Highest
High
Mod.
Low
High
Mod.
Low
Highest
1
2
2
3
2
2
3
High
2
3
4
4
3
4
4
Moderate
2
3
5
6
3
5
6
Low
3
4
6
7
4
6
7

And yes, they have a slightly different scheme for females.

As you can see, all that work described above gets boiled down to a single number.

What would your number be? What would your loved one’s number be?

Any attempt to advocate for your loved one’s release on parole requires both a broad understanding of the BPP Risk Assessment method and a counter-narrative for the parole board to consider that relies on a more personalized and fair assessment of risk and uses more personalized data to show the board what the true cost/benefit calculus is when deciding on release.

Because, no matter what the TDCJ risk assessment tool says, every inmate is more than a statistic . . . and more than a single-digit number.

The trick is, can we ever get to the point where we can open BPP’s Parole Black Box?