Philadelphia Weighs Racial Impact of Bail Reforms

Print More looks into the racial ramifications of bail reforms that are part of sweeping changes to Philadelphia’s criminal justice system. City officials are working with top data scientists to develop a computerized risk assessment tool that looks at a variety of factors and assigns a defendant a label: low-, medium- or high-risk. Bail will be assigned from there, and the ultimate goal is to get more pretrial defendants out of the city’s jails while working to eventually end cash bail entirely. Criminal justice reform advocates see the end goal as a good one. But there’s a real concern that computerized risk assessment tools could predict recidivism by weighing factors that serve as a proxy for race and socioeconomic status, ultimately incarcerating more black and brown defendants while allowing white defendants to go free.

Hannah Sassaman, the policy director at the Media Mobilizing Project who was recently awarded a fellowship to study risk assessment models, said there are factors beyond race and zip code — which won’t be incorporated into Philadelphia’s risk assessment tool — that can stand as a proxy for race, whether it’s conviction record, job status or arrest history. “If we know convictions are caused by those systemic racist factors, how can we have convictions as a proxy for dangerousness?” she said. The development of a new risk assessment tool for Philadelphia is part of a number of strategies being implemented by a team of stakeholders working on a three-year project to reduce Philadelphia’s prison population by a third. Much of those efforts are being funded by a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

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