In the criminal justice context, it’s easy for bias to creep into risk assessment tools. The devil is in the data.

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Vincent Southerland — Executive Director, Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law, NYU Law
APRIL 9, 2018 | 11:00 AM

If we have learned anything in the last decade about our criminal justice system, it is how astonishingly dysfunctional it is. Extensive investigations have revealed persistent racial disparities at every stage, a different kind of justice for the haves and the have nots, and a system that neither rehabilitates individuals nor ensures public safety. In short, the system is in crisis.

Rather than scrapping everything and starting anew, many criminal justice stakeholders have turned to technology to repair the breach through “risk assessment tools.” Also labeled artificial intelligence, automated decision-making, or predictive analytics, these tools have been touted as carrying with them the potential to save a broken system, and they now play a role at nearly every critical stage of the criminal justice process. …

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St. Louis Police Cruiser (Wikimedia Commons)

The acquittal of Jason Stockley, a White former St. Louis police officer, for shooting and killing Anthony Smith — who was Black — served as yet another grim reminder of the elusive nature of justice in America. The facts generally fit an all-too-familiar pattern. A Black man, woman, or child’s life is interrupted by an encounter with a police officer borne out of that officer’s suspicion. The encounter turns into a death sentence for the officer’s target. The suspect-turned-victim’s death is followed by calls for justice from a community that has long been over-policed and under-resourced. The criminal justice system — which we task with adjudicating these fatal transgressions — finds a way to obscure reality and ignore the facts. In many cases, the story concludes as it did for Stockley: with the victim’s race and status weaponized, an officer claiming they feared for their life because of it, and an exoneration by trial. Sometimes it ends without any charges being filed at all. A conviction is exceedingly rare. Most of the time, the system holds no one accountable. The community cries out in protest, only to have their voices suppressed through violence, force, and intimidation at the hands of the state. In St. …


Vincent M. Southerland

Executive Director, Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at NYU School of Law

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