Lost in Translation: 'Risks' 'Needs,' and 'Evidence' in Implementing the First Step Act

In this article, we focus on two highly problematic issues in the manner in which the First Step Act of 2018 is being implemented by the Bureau of Prisons: (1) an uncritical separation of “dynamic risks” and “criminogenic needs” and (2) a spurious reliance on “evidence-based” interventions to reduce recidivism risk. We argue that if the Act is to live up to its promise of being a game-changing development in efforts to reduce crime while simultaneously shrinking mass incarceration, “needs assessment” must be subject to vastly increased empirical attention, variable and causal risk factors must be identified and validly assessed, and interventions to reduce risk must be rigorously evaluated both for their fidelity of implementation and impact on recidivism. Rather than further proliferating programs that ostensibly reduce risk, we believe that serious consideration should be given to the Bureau of Prisons offering one signature, well-established cognitive-behavioral program that can simultaneously address multiple risk factors for moderate and high-risk prisoners.