How computers are predicting crime – and potentially impacting your future


For about eight years, Philadelphia’s probation and parole department has used a computer algorithm to rate the riskiness of nearly every offender it oversees. But officials there won’t say what factors the tool weighs, raising questions about transparency. The city plans to create a similar risk assessment tool for use in bail decisions. – Tricia L. Nadolny, Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News

Source: www.philly.com

 Corrections Secretary John Wetzel Tours State Correction Institution Phoenix

 

How computers are predicting crime – and potentially impacting your future

Four months before he allegedly took part in a botched robbery that left a Spring Garden father bleeding to death in front of his young daughter, Maurice Roberts was assessed for the likelihood he would commit just such a violent crime.

Philadelphia’s Adult Probation and Parole Department won’t say how he scored.

And the answer is hidden in the recesses of a computer algorithm officials don’t want to talk about.

That reluctance came as a surprise to Richard Berk, a criminologist from the University of Pennsylvania who helped create the algorithm.

Four months before he allegedly took part in a botched robbery that left a Spring Garden father bleeding to death in front of his young daughter, Maurice Roberts was assessed for the likelihood he would commit just such a violent crime.

Philadelphia’s Adult Probation and Parole Department won’t say how he scored.

And the answer is hidden in the recesses of a computer algorithm officials don’t want to talk about.

That reluctance came as a surprise to Richard Berk, a criminologist from the University of Pennsylvania who helped create the algorithm.

The tools, like judges, are bound to make bad forecasts that could lead to the release of a suspect better kept incarcerated until trial or the over-supervision of a parolee who might then struggle to keep a job.

The question that divides the criminal justice world is whether risk assessment tools make the imperfect process used now better or worse.

Judges for decades have looked into a person’s past when weighing their future.

The idea of a computer making that calculation is less familiar.

Philadelphia is considering taking that step for bail decisions as part of a $3.4 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation aimed at reducing disparity in the prison system and the overall prison population by a third in three years.

Each tool is unique, but the simplest use a point system to weigh factors such as a person’s age, the seriousness of the offense and how many times they have failed to appear in court in the past.

The model used by Philadelphia’s probation and parole department, and which Berk is expected to develop for use in the city’s bail system, is known as a random-forest tool and, as the name suggests, far more complex.

Consider one tree in that forest that starts with a question and branches off into many more. How old is the person? Under 26, go left. Over 26, go right. How old were they at first arrest? Over 18, go left. Under 18, go right. Is the current offense violent? No, go left. Yes, go right.

A single risk assessment tool can have hundreds of trees, each with about a dozen splits.  The computer runs through them all in a matter of seconds to reach its recommendation. In almost all cases those scores merely guide judges or bail magistrates, who still make the ultimate call.

The tools are controversial, given the potential for bias in the data they use.

Race and zip code (which is tantamount to race in some of Philadelphia’s highly-segregated communities) clearly carry bias.

How the Law Office of Scott A. Ferris, P.A. Can Help

If you, a friend or a family member find themselves in a situation such as this, please call the Law Office of Scott A. Ferris, P.A. at 305 670-3330 right away. Scott A. Ferris, Esq. is a licensed criminal defense attorney who has been practicing law since 1987. He is available whenever you need him to defend your rights. Please learn about our firm at www.FerrisLawFirm.com.

 Republished by the Law Office of Scott A. Ferris, P.A.

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