Instant Insights / The United States of Risk Assessment: The Machines Influencing Criminal Justice Decisions

The United States of Risk Assessment: The Machines Influencing Criminal Justice Decisions


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Much of the public awareness that criminal justice decisions are being influenced by risk assessment tools started with an instrument called the Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS). A 2016 investigation by ProPublica found that the artificial intelligence-based tool, which several U.S. jurisdictions use to determine a defendant’s or convicted offender’s risk to reoffend and factors contributing to that risk, was biased against African Americans.

The company that owns the tool, Equivant (formerly Northpointe), disputed the finding, citing research from independent academic studies that showed otherwise. What followed was a surge of ongoing research and debate over the impartiality, effectiveness and limits of COMPAS and other risk and needs assessment (RNA) tools, and the role they should play in the criminal justice system.

It’s not hard to see why COMPAS, which has influenced sentencing and offender supervision decisions around the country, has sparked so much attention. It piques the imagination: an AI system predicting future crimes, like something straight out of “Minority Report,” “1984″ or other dystopian sci-fi tales.

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Rhys Dipshan

CT-born, New York-based legal tech reporter covering everything from in-house technology disruption to privacy trends, blockchain, AI, cybersecurity, and ghosts-in-the-machine. Continually waiting for law to catch up with tech. (It's like waiting for Godot, but without the clowns)

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Victoria Hudgins

I am a reporter for Legaltech News where I cover national and international cyber regulations and legal tech innovations and developments.

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Frank Ready

Frank Ready is a reporter on the tech desk at ALM Media. He can be reached at [email protected]

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