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The problems with algorithms when used for sentencing

In September 2016, Nebraska launched a statewide automated sentencing calculation software system. The system was designed to more accurately calculate inmate release dates. Prior to then the calculations were done manually, with a pencil, paper and calculator. Miscalculation was a problem, resulting in the early release of prisoners.

Weighty numbers

Most people take for granted the use of algorithms to calculate aspects of everyday life. For small things such as music recommendations or online ads selections, algorithms are not necessarily problematic. The problem with relying on algorithms for life changing decisions is that the mathematical equations are not impartial or completely accurate.

The algorithms in sentencing calculate a person’s likelihood to reoffend. The system rates a person on a scale of high to low risk for committing another crime. Age and prior convictions are the biggest determining factors in recidivism rates. Judges are meant to use the score to determine jail time.

Inherent racism

The prediction rate is not always accurate and tends to favor white offenders. The algorithm often incorrectly labels black offenders as higher risk to reoffend. Several studies criticizing the practice found it is mathematically impossible for the algorithm to be fair. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stated the use of risk scores, “may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities that are already far too common in our criminal justice system and in our society”.

Importance of human judgment

While a judge may have inherent personal bias, their duty is to hand out impartial judgment. Other risk recidivism factors not always reflected in a calculation include community ties and a history of appearing at court proceedings. Judges should look at all aspects of an offender’s case before determining a sentence.

Using an accurate computer generated risk score removes human bias, resulting in a fairer criminal justice system. However, until the calculations are accurate, a recidivism rate score should not be the only determining factor for sentencing calculation.

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