Algorithms in the Criminal Justice System

Assessing the Use of Risk Assessments in Sentencing

August 25, 2017

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Authors: Priscilla Guo, Danielle Kehl, and Sam Kessler.

In the summer of 2016, some unusual headlines began appearing in news outlets across the United States. “Secret Algorithms That Predict Future Criminals Get a Thumbs Up From the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” read one. Another declared: “There’s software used across the country to predict future criminals. And it’s biased against blacks.” These news stories (and others like them) drew attention to a previously obscure but fast-growing area in the field of criminal justice: the use of risk assessment software, powered by sophisticated and sometimes proprietary algorithms, to predict whether individual criminals are likely candidates for recidivism. In recent years, these programs have spread like wildfire throughout the American judicial system. They are now being used in a broad capacity, in areas ranging from pre-trial risk assessment to sentencing and probation hearings.

This paper focuses on the latest—and perhaps most concerning—use of these risk assessment tools: their incorporation into the criminal sentencing process, a development which raises fundamental legal and ethical questions about fairness, accountability, and transparency. The goal is to provide an overview of these issues and offer a set of key considerations and questions for further research that can help local policymakers who are currently implementing or considering implementing similar systems. We start by putting this trend in context: the history of actuarial risk in the American legal system and the evolution of algorithmic risk assessments as the latest incarnation of a much broader trend. We go on to discuss how these tools are used in sentencing specifically and how that differs from other contexts like pre-trial risk assessment. We then delve into the legal and policy questions raised by the use of risk assessment software in sentencing decisions, including the potential for constitutional challenges under the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Finally, we summarize the challenges that these systems create for law and policymakers in the United States, and outline a series of possible best practices to ensure that these systems are deployed in a manner that promotes fairness, transparency, and accountability in the criminal justice system.

This is a paper of the Responsive Communities project produced by Harvard students Priscilla Guo, Danielle Kehl, and Sam Kessler. This paper is a product of the students' work in the HLS Responsive Communities Lab course, co-led by Susan Crawford and Waide Warner.

Last updated

August 25, 2017