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Sent to prison by secret algorithm

Use of software putting strain on how judiciary goes about doing things

Adam Liptak 

A judge hitting gavel with paper at wooden table. (Photo: Shutterstock)
A judge hitting gavel with paper at wooden table. (Photo: Shutterstock)

When Chief Justice John G Roberts Jr visited Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute last month, he was asked a startling question, one with overtones of science fiction.

“Can you foresee a day,” asked Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the college in upstate New York, “when smart machines, driven with artificial intelligences, will assist with courtroom fact-finding or, more controversially even, judicial decision-making?”

The chief justice’s answer was more surprising than the question. “It’s a day that’s here,” he said, “and it’s putting a significant strain on how the judiciary goes about doing things.”

He may have been thinking about the case of a Wisconsin man, Eric L Loomis, who was sentenced to six years in prison based in part on a private company’s proprietary software. Loomis says his right to due process was violated by a judge’s consideration of a report generated by the software’s secret algorithm, one Loomis was unable to inspect or challenge.

In March, in a signal that the justices were intrigued by Loomis’ case, they asked the federal government to file a friend-of-the-court brief offering its views on whether the court should hear his appeal.

The report in Loomis’ case was produced by a product called Compas, sold by Northpointe Inc. It included a series of bar charts that assessed the risk that Loomis would commit more crimes.

The Compas report, a prosecutor told the trial judge, showed “a high risk of violence, high risk of recidivism, high pretrial risk”. The judge agreed, telling Loomis that “you’re identified, through the Compas assessment, as an individual who is a high risk to the community”.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled against Loomis. The report added valuable information, it said, and Loomis would have gotten the same sentence based solely on the usual factors, including his crime — fleeing the police in a car — and his criminal history.

At the same time, the court seemed uneasy with using a secret algorithm to send a man to prison. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, writing for the court, discussed, for instance, a report from ProPublica about Compas that concluded that black defendants in Broward County, Florida, “were far more likely than white defendants to be incorrectly judged to be at a higher rate of recidivism”.

Justice Bradley noted that Northpointe had disputed the analysis. Still, she wrote, “this study and raise concerns regarding how a Compas assessment’s risk factors correlate with race”.

In the end, though, Justice Bradley allowed sentencing judges to use Compas. They must take account of the algorithm’s limitations and the secrecy surrounding it, she wrote, but said the software could be helpful “in providing the sentencing court with as much information as possible in order to arrive at an individualised sentence”.

Justice Bradley made Compas’s role in sentencing sound like the consideration of race in a selective university’s holistic admissions program. It could be one factor among many, she wrote, but not the determinative one.
© 2017 New York Times News Service

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