Currently, courts and corrections departments around the US use algorithms to determine a defendant’s “risk”, which ranges from the probability that an individual will commit another crime to the likelihood a defendant will appear for his or her court date. These algorithmic outputs inform decisions about bail, sentencing, and parole. Each tool aspires to improve on the accuracy of human decision-making that allows for a better allocation of finite resources.
Typically, government agencies do not write their own algorithms; they buy them from private businesses. This often means the algorithm is proprietary or “black boxed”, meaning only the owners, and to a limited degree the purchaser, can see how the software makes decisions. Currently, there is no federal law that sets standards or requires the inspection of these tools, the way the FDA does with new drugs.
I am completely shocked this is being allowed in court rooms. I can't imagine that defense attorneys are not vehemently challenging any sentence in which its not possible to get a clear explanation about the methodology used.
Consider a scenario in which the defense attorney calls a developer of a neural-network-based risk assessment tool to the witness stand to challenge the “high risk” score that could affect her client’s sentence. On the stand, the engineer could tell the court how the neural network was designed, what inputs were entered, and what outputs were created in a specific case. However, the engineer could not explain the software’s decision-making process.
With these facts, or lack thereof, how does a judge weigh the validity of a risk-assessment tool if she cannot understand its decision-making process? How could an appeals court know if the tool decided that socioeconomic factors, a constitutionally dubious input, determined a defendant’s risk to society?
It'd hard to overstate how much this runs contrary to the foundation of our entire legal system. Wired generally isn't one to make strong proclamations but the title of the article alone shows just how bizarre of a scenario this really is.