Pre-trial algorithms deserve a fresh look, study suggests

Logan Koepke
Mar 30, 2017 · 9 min read
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Photo by Karen Neoh

The scenario: Before trial, judges make predictions about flight risk and public safety

What the researchers did

Judges often detain low-risk defendants and release the riskiest

Should we put the algorithm in charge?

What the “auto pilot” scenario would look like

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Policy constraints could help ensure racial equity

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A quick orientation: The first row of the table details the racial composition of the defendant pool as they appear before judges — the “base rate.” The second row details the rate at which judges detained defendants in real life. The third row reproduces the results of the researchers’ algorithm: as mentioned, it’s able to outperform judges in lowering the crime rate by 24 percent. The final three rows test how different algorithmic policy constraints might lead to reduced racial disparities in incarceration. I’ll only focus on the last row — though the other two offer interesting alternative approaches.

This isn’t a silver bullet — it won’t solve other troubling underlying disparities — but it could help.

Don’t forget: We’re only talking about pre-trial decisions.

Equal Future

Social justice & technology.

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