Even Imperfect Algorithms Can Improve the Criminal Justice System

Sam Corbett-Davies, Sharad Goel and Sandra González-Bailón in the The New York Times: “In courtrooms across the country, judges turn to computer algorithms when deciding whether defendants awaiting trial must pay bail or can be released without payment. The increasing use of such algorithms has prompted warnings about the dangers of artificial intelligence. But research shows that algorithms are powerful tools for combating the capricious and biased nature of human decisions.

Bail decisions have traditionally been made by judges relying on intuition and personal preference, in a hasty process that often lasts just a few minutes. In New York City, the strictest judges are more than twice as likely to demand bail as the most lenient ones.

To combat such arbitrariness, judges in some cities now receive algorithmically generated scores that rate a defendant’s risk of skipping trial or committing a violent crime if released. Judges are free to exercise discretion, but algorithms bring a measure of consistency and evenhandedness to the process.

The use of these algorithms often yields immediate and tangible benefits: Jail populations, for example, can decline without adversely affecting public safety.

In one recent experiment, agencies in Virginia were randomly selected to use an algorithm that rated both defendants’ likelihood of skipping trial and their likelihood of being arrested if released. Nearly twice as many defendants were released, and there was no increase in pretrial crime….(More)”.