Bias In, Bias Out


Police, prosecutors, judges, and other criminal justice actors increasingly use algorithmic risk assessment to estimate the likelihood that a person will commit future crime. As many scholars have noted, these algorithms tend to have disparate racial impact. In response, critics advocate three strategies of resistance: (1) the exclusion of input factors that correlate closely with race, (2) adjustments to algorithmic design to equalize predictions across racial lines, and (3) rejection of algorithmic methods altogether.

This Article’s central claim is that these strategies are at best superficial and at worst counterproductive, because the source of racial inequality in risk assessment lies neither in the input data, nor in a particular algorithm, nor in algorithmic methodology. The deep problem is the nature of prediction itself. All prediction looks to the past to make guesses about future events. In a racially stratified world, any method of prediction will project the inequalities of the past into the future. This is as true of the subjective prediction that has long pervaded criminal justice as of the algorithmic tools now replacing it. What algorithmic risk assessment has done is reveal the inequality inherent in all prediction, forcing us to confront a much larger problem than the challenges of a new technology. Algorithms shed new light on an old problem.

Ultimately, the Article contends, redressing racial disparity in prediction will require more fundamental changes in the way the criminal justice system conceives of and responds to risk. The Article argues that criminal law and policy should, first, more clearly delineate the risks that matter, and, second, acknowledge that some kinds of risk may be beyond our ability to measure without racial distortion—in which case they cannot justify state coercion. To the extent that we can reliably assess risk, on the other hand, criminal system actors should strive to respond to risk with support rather than restraint whenever possible. Counterintuitively, algorithmic risk assessment could be a valuable tool in a system that targets the risky for support.