They May Be Intelligent, But Are They Wise?

Speaking of fair shakes, here is a wise word of caution about the emerging, expanding use of computer programs to evaluate people in the justice system, whether at bail hearings, sentencings, or elsewhere.

The author is a former software engineer at Facebook who’s now studying law at Harvard. Her point isn’t that we shouldn’t use or consult these programs, but we should know what we’re getting into and proceed with caution. It’s troubling, for example, if we use programs that no one in the field fully understands—not judges, not lawyers, not probation—because the manufacturer won’t disclose a proprietary algorithm.

She says we turn to computers in part to control for our own biases, “[b]ut shifting the … responsibility to a computer doesn’t necessarily eliminate bias; it delegates and often compounds it.” That’s because these programs mimic the data we use to train them, so even the ones that accurately reflect our world will necessarily reflect our biases. Plus, they work on a feedback loop, so if they’re not constantly retrained, they lean in toward those biases and drift even further from reality and fairness. So they don’t just parrot our own biases; they amplify them. She saw this phenomenon time and again as a software engineer.

She agrees that algorithms can work for good. They’ve reportedly helped New Jersey reduce its pretrial jail population, for example.

But let’s proceed with caution, she says:

“Computers may be intelligent, but they are not wise. Everything they know, we taught them, and we taught them our biases. They are not going to un-learn them without transparency and corrective action by humans.”

Two Sides of the Same Coin

It’s not always easy to weigh the scales of justice.

Sometimes, like in the two stories from last week, the system treats people too harshly, and it ruins their lives.

Other times, though, someone’s unfairly blamed for not being harsh enough.

That’s the premise of this piece by a former chief criminal judge who was vilified for setting someone free without bail who then committed another crime.

But he made the best decision he could at the time. The guy was charged with failing to register as a sex offender. It’s a fairly common charge, and the guy was there for arraignment along with some thirty people.

It was a typical busy day in court, and the judge had to make a bunch of good decisions quickly. The prosecutor’s office called for a high bail amount that could have kept the guy in jail pending trial. But they always did that in these types of cases.

Under the law, the guy was presumed innocent in this case, and he was supposed to be released unless he was a flight risk or danger to the community. He didn’t seem to be a flight risk because he’d come to court on his own after being summonsed by mail. And he didn’t seem like a danger to the community, either. He wasn’t charged with a violent crime, and though he’d been convicted of forcible rape in 1993, that was over twenty years ago.

The judge heard from both sides and then followed the law, releasing him.

A week later, the guy was arrested on suspicion of rape and kidnapping. He ended up pleading guilty to lesser charges in that case in exchange for a seven-year sentence. But in the meantime, some hell broke loose.

The judge was called incompetent; he was called pro-rape; he was attacked on local talk radio and even the national news.

Here is how he dealt with it.

 

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