Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The future is now for sentencing in Pennsylvania

Officials in Pennsylvania, which has been slowly preparing to use risk assessment in sentencing for the past six years, are sensitive to these potential pitfalls, reported Bloomberg. The state’s experience shows how tricky it is to create an algorithm through the public policy process. To come up with a politically palatable risk tool, Pennsylvania established a sentencing commission. It quickly rejected commercial products like Compas, saying they were too expensive and too mysterious, so the commission began creating its own system.
To understand the algorithms being used all over the country, it’s good to talk to Richard Berk. He’s been writing them for decades. Berk, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is a shortish, bald guy, whose solid stature and I-dare-you-to-disagree-with-me demeanor might lead people to mistake him for an ex-cop. In fact, he’s a career statistician.
“Race was discarded immediately as an input. But every other factor became a matter of debate. When the state initially wanted to include location, which it determined to be statistically useful in predicting who would re-offend, the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers argued that it was a proxy for race, given patterns of housing segregation. The commission eventually dropped the use of location. Also in question: the system’s use of arrests, instead of convictions, since it seems to punish people who live in communities that are policed more aggressively.
Berk argues that eliminating sensitive factors weakens the predictive power of the algorithms. “If you want me to do a totally race-neutral forecast, you’ve got to tell me what variables you’re going to allow me to use, and nobody can, because everything is confounded with race and gender,” he said.
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