Civil rights groups concerned about biases in recidivism reduction algorithm

An algorithm that was launched in June by the U.S. Department of Justice to predict the likelihood of recidivism for federal inmates is being criticized by civil rights activists of possible gender and racial bias.

The Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs (PATTERN) algorithm is part of the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill that was passed by Congress with bipartisan support and signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2018. The law intends to reduce recidivism and streamline the process through which inmates can be rewarded for good behavior, with the ultimate goal of reducing the federal prison population.

According to the DOJ, 3,100 federal inmates were already released as a result of the First Step Act. According to the Bureau of Prisons, as of September 12, there were 177,080 inmates under custody of the BOP, either in federal or private facilities.

The way PATTERN works is by classifying a BOP prisoner into one of four Risk Level Categories (“RLCs”) by scoring them by assigning points in 17 different categories. In their report explaining how the algorithm works, the DOJ touts that the new algorithm is 15% more accurate than similar tools, according to a metric called Area Under the Curve (AUC). The AUC represents the likelihood that the algorithm would give any given recidivist a higher risk score than a non-recidivist.

But as with other algorithms used by the justice system, PATTERN is raising controversy over the types of inputs it uses. Earlier this month, civil rights groups have published an open letter criticizing the fact that the algorithm uses historical data to calculate the assessments, which would make it a fertile ground for biases.

While the DOJ report also explains that tests were conducted to assess “racial and ethnic neutrality,” and that there is “minimal racial/ethnic disparity for PATTERN’s prediction strength,” the civil rights groups also urged the DOJ to address concerns about “racial, ethnic and gender biases.” According to the authors of the letter, failures in the algorithm “could be holding back thousands more from the freedom they deserve.”

An additional concern is that, whatever solutions are created to reduce the number of federal inmates, that would only impact a small proportion of prisoners in the country. The 2018 report on mass incarceration by the Prison Policy Initiative shows that only 10% of inmates in the United States are in federal facilities, compared to 60% for state prisons and 30% for local jails.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported this year that there were almost 2.2 million inmates in the United States in 2016, which means that for every 100,000 people residing in the United States, approximately 670 of them were behind bars. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, incarceration costs an average of more than $31,000 per inmate, per year, nationwide. In some states, it’s as much as $60,000. 

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