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Bias in bail: Parthasarathy cautions against new Public Safety Assessment tools

April 19, 2019

Tackling criminal justice reform requires a multi-pronged approach, and one of the most recent avenues gaining traction is an attempt to rework how pretrial decisions are made. The Michigan Supreme Court has its hands in this effort, launching a new program called Public Safety Assessment (PSA) aimed at streamlining pretrial hearings through predictive algorithms. The implications of this new effort are explored in the Michigan Radio Stateside April 15, 2019, piece titled “Predictive algorithms can speed up bail decisions, but not without shortcomings,” by Lindsey Smith. Speaking with experts, including Professor Shobita Parthasarathy, Smith looks at how the new technology will affect marginalized populations.

When judges are deciding between bail and jail time, they must evaluate the likelihood of the defendant to make their court date or not. PSAs are being touted as one way to distance the court from a cash bail system, as it utilizes “nine risk factors that are essentially a series of criminal history indicators.”

This has many worried, including Parthasarathy, who says this will bolster an already biased system. “As with all areas of society,” Parthasarathy warns, “we in the criminal justice system are always trying to reach toward scientific explanations because somehow we see that as objective, as standardizable, and that that can somehow take out human judgement in the system.” These algorithms, she says, entrench biases in risk assessment tools against marginalized populations who may have other complex factors contributing to whether or not they can make their court date.

To learn how such intricacies are taken into account, researchers will be watching the rollout of PSAs in Hamtramck and 15 other countries currently using similar tools.

Read or listen to the full story here.

Shobita Parthasarathy is a professor of public policy and heads the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the Ford School. She is interested in how to develop innovation, and innovation policy, to better achieve public interest and social justice goals. Much of her previous work has focused on the governance of emerging science and technology, particularly those that have uncertain environmental, social, ethical, political, and health implications.