Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The case for risk assessments despite allegations they are racist

Here's an unpopular take that I'll probably regret offering:

Grits finds himself a tad annoyed with well-intentioned liberals crowing from the rooftops that risk assessments in criminal justice fields are "racist," and wishes these debates allowed for more nuance.

While I agree that criminal-justice data skews to overstate risk for black folks, I don't necessarily agree that foregoing data-driven risk assessments achieves better outcomes. Judges making seat-of-the-pants decisions rely on the same discriminatory data, and incarcerate people of all races at greater rates than risk-assessments would dictate.

Let's cut to the chase. Consider a thought experiment in which a jurisdiction is 85% white and 15% black. In this jurisdiction, based on judges' stand-alone decisions, 100 people are being held pretrial, and the proportions by race are 60 white folks and 40 black folks, so there's a significant racial disparity.

Now lets say the risk-assessment algorithm also discriminates because of the use of data from a system embedded with a racist, even white-supremacist ideology, as well as historical disparities in violent crime rates by race.*

For the sake of argument, let's say the risk assessment labels 1 in 3 white people incarcerated as "low risk" and recommends release, but only 1 in 4 black defendants. Now let's assume judges release every inmate labeled "low risk." What would be the result?

Under this scenario, 40 white people would be incarcerated compared to 30 black people. Thus, the percentage of black folks incarcerated would go up, from 40 to 43 percent. So, it's possible to accurately say that use of the risk assessment INCREASES racial disparities.

But which outcome is better from a civil-rights perspective - 40 black folks locked up in jail or 30?

I'm a middle-aged white guy and certainly can't and won't attempt to speak for black people. But my own belief is that the outcome under the risk-assessment model is more tolerable. Others' mileage may vary.

What am I missing here?

CAVEAT: There are many offenses where no risk assessment need be used at all. In the Harris County bail settlement, 85% of misdemeanor defendants will be released without a bail determination hearing of any sort. Where that's not possible, IMO risk assessments are superior to judges making the determination on their own, at least until someone convinces me otherwise.

*Violent crime rates among black folks have been declining dramatically in recent years, falling at greater rates, even, than overall crime declines. But the rates remain higher than other racial categories. According to the 2017 National Crime Victimization Survey, "Based on victims reports, there were about four fifths as many white [violent-crime] offenders as the percentage of whites in the population, [and] about twice as many black offenders as the percentage of blacks in the population." Because most victims of violent crime are attacked by someone of the same race, this also translates into more black victims"For the year 2015, blacks represented 13 percent of the nation’s population, yet accounted for 51 percent of all homicide victims." This dynamic is a source of some but by no means all of the disparities attributed to risk assessments.

15 comments:

Steven Michael Seys said...

There are a small, vocal minority of nihilists in our society who do nothing but make accusations of racism where racism doesn't exist or fascism where fascism doesn't exist in the hope of watching the whole society burn. They are the descendants of the ones who sabotaged the good intended programs of assistance for the poor to warp cultures into pits in which to trap people. If you listen to these self-fulfilling prophets you can do nothing that is good. Risk assessments are not racist, they're factual. Facts are not fascists. Facts are unaware of feelings.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I don't discount that disproportionate criminal enforcement can contribute to bias, especially if risk assessments include drug offenses, where there is radically disproportionate policing. But I don't understand the wholesale rejection of risk assessments bc, well, math.

This post emerged from a debate on Twitter, which is a terrible format to discuss nuanced policy questions. But while 20 hours ago those folks were anxious to hop online moments after anything I tweeted to accuse me of condoning discrimination and arguing in bad faith, notably none of them have responded here when the argument can be made in more than 280 characters. Maybe today they'll drop by. I truly don't understand the complaints.

Anonymous said...

You might reach out to the Austin ASQ Section to find someone to kick risk assessment math back and forth with.

https://asqaustin.org/

People there make their money with statistics and risk based thinking. I trust them over any academic or civil servant.

Anonymous said...

Just get Karl Hanson and David Thornton to write your risk assessment, then designate one TDCJ employee to review the outcomes.

They'll give you a test with 9 risk categories from the most rudimentary questions. You can then throw out 6 of those categories, use the test on people that weren't represented in the data pool, and get a convenient number that isn't indicative of anything at all, doesn't bias against race because it's questions base is so vague that it couldn't tell black from white. And they'll readily bill you to "train" your employees in it's implementation.

The problem isn't risk assessments on their face, it's that the State commissions risk assessments that produce a desired result and calls it due process.

Anonymous said...

Opponents to risk assessment, at least the educated opponents, often focus not on the premise but on the execution of the practice. As Anon 9:12 points out, too many officials are all too willing to put the cart before the horse by started with the desired result and then cobble together something they will call a risk assessment to justify the result. Of course there will be bias in any approach we use but some also point out that risk assessments rely heavily on historical data, data based on past practices that reformists readily admit were flawed.

So if a risk assessment is going to rely on a series of correlations such as previous frequency of being arrested, economic largess, steady employment, or home ownership to name a few, that will disproportionately impact minorities. Common sense would suggest using an individual's past record of showing up for court hearings and factor in how violent an alleged crime was but none of the current assessments such as the Arnold Foundation's model, made me very confident that they were race neutral or otherwise fair to those of less means.

Anonymous said...

Since nobody can predict future violence or future dangerousness with certainty, any risk assessment will produce both false positives and false negatives. Therefore, much like a judge who makes certain assumptions based on un-tabulated "experience", injustice is going to occur with or without risk assessments.

Have been appalled at how long the mentally ill tend to sit in jail or in the competency restoration system. It seems like dangerous assumptions are already happening. And again, nobody can accurately predict future dangerousness. In Barefoot v Estelle, the American Psychiatric Association lamented psychiatry's role in death penalty cases given that even under the best circumstances psychiatrists get it wrong in at least 2 out of 3 cases.

Hadar Aviram said...

Scott, I don't know if this helps, but I've been having the same debates about risk assessment in CA with the same faction of well-intentioned crowers and, frankly, have given up on the possibility of having a sensible debate about this, on Twitter or elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Why dont you go to the Harris or Dallas county jail and watch a days worth of hearings for those who get arrested......see if you learn anything

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Anonymous said...

Anon 1:16, while it's true that any method of predicting violence or future danger will result in mixed results, a sensible system put together by experts and subjected to peer review is much more likely to result in good results than some of the lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key types of judges we've elected all too many times in Texas. Such a system would also provide better results than a blank check to let 85% or more of those accused of crimes to get a free pass but the opposition from both sides of the political spectrum is usually based in poor assumptions. Maybe some day such a validated model will be put forth and include screening for those with mental health issues, a few states already have such a system, but given psychiatry's track record, their input should be minimized if the numbers stated are accurate.

Anonymous said...

a sensible system put together by experts and subjected to peer review is much more likely to be killed in committee than become actual legislation.

Anonymous said...

For some great arguments against risk assessment, see Tonry 2019. He’s writing about sentencing, but the same arguments apply to pretrial. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3297789

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