The latest pretrial risk assessment tool is the Public Safety Assessment, developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Drawing from a database of over 1.5 million cases from more than 300 jurisdictions across the U.S., the algorithm calculates the probability that a defendant will commit a new crime, commit a new violent crime, or fail to return to court, reports the Christian Science Monitor. The assessment takes into consideration a number of factors, including pending charges, prior convictions, whether the current offense is violent, and whether the person has failed to appear at other pretrial hearings. Unlike a human assessor, it’s blind to race, gender, level of education, socioeconomic status, and neighborhood, all of which can affect a judge’s decision, whether subconsciously or consciously.
In San Francisco, one of 29 places, including three states and several major cities, using the algorithm, the Arnold assessment was brought in after the national civil rights group Equal Justice Under Law sued the city, saying its bail system unfairly punished poor arrestees. “I think it has the potential to be a move in the right direction, but when it is watered down or misunderstood or rejected unreasonably, then it’s not clear what good it will do,” Deputy Public Defender Danielle Harris told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We were excited about having more research and more data being brought into decision-making, but we’ve been disappointed.” Cherise Fanno Burdeen of the Pretrial Justice Institute compares the use of algorithms in the criminal justice system to the use of assessment tools in other fields that rely on evidence rather than personal discretion, such as medicine or auto insurance. “I don’t want a doctor to imagine what he thinks my vitals are,” she says. “I want him to take the vitals that are the ones science shows are predictive of my possible diagnosis.”