New Jersey’s use of an algorithm to advise judges on pretrial release “is what the new vision of American justice looks like,” NBC News reports. Created by data scientists and criminal-justice researchers, the algorithm — one of dozens of “risk assessment tools” being used around the U.S. — promises to use data to scrub the system of bias by keeping only the most dangerous defendants behind bars, regardless of socioeconomic status. Six months into the new practice, New Jersey jails are already starting to empty, and the number of people locked up while awaiting trial has dropped.
It’s also clear that data is no wonder drug. The new system — driven by years of research involving hundreds of thousands of cases and requiring multimillion-dollar technology upgrades and the hiring of more judges, prosecutors and court workers — still produces contentious decisions about who deserves freedom and who does not. Police officials and prosecutors complain about the release of people charged with gun crimes, fleeing police, attacking an officer, sex offenses and domestic violence, and of those who keep getting re-arrested. In at least two cases, people have been killed by men who’d been released on earlier charges. The bail bond industry, facing extinction, has backed two federal lawsuits seeking to end the algorithm’s use. Defense lawyers and civil rights advocates say people who pose little risk have been ordered detained, only to be given plea deals or have their charges dropped. They fear that authorities are exploiting the new system to generate convictions. It remains unclear whether the new approach will reduce racial disparities, drive down crime rates or be fiscally sustainable. If it works in New Jersey, it could become a model for the rest of the nation.