ProPublica: Racial Disparity Alleged in Florida Criminal Risk Assessment Tools

The study of predicting which criminals are more likely to commit future crimes has been one of great interest for many years, and it’s given birth to computerized systems in the U.S. known as “criminal risk assessment tools.” Criminologists say there is a public interest in recognizing which individuals may be more dangerous before it is decided how long their sentence should be and when or whether they should be released. teen1

Prior to the 1970s, these predictions routinely factored race, skin color and nationality. The following decade, as the country was in a midst of a crime wave, lawmakers imposed many mandatory minimum sentences and removed discretion from the hands of prosecutors and judges. That meant there was less important to evaluate individual offenders, but then states started grappling with overflowing prisons and jails. And that’s where criminal risk forecast has swung back into routine use.

As detailed in a recent ProPublica article, dozens of computerized risk assessments are being used nationally – including right here in Broward County. These programs made by for-profit firms weigh dozens of various factors. However, the researchers found that these scores have been cited repeatedly by judges at sentencing hearings, and what’s more, the results tend to be skewed along racial lines. Black defendants are often deemed to have a much higher risk assessment, even when the crimes are similar and the statistics are controlled for other factors. 

The results of these risk assessments are sometimes shared with criminal defense lawyers, but defendants rarely have a chance to refute them.

Proponents of these systems say they can help reduce the rates of incarceration, but then the question becomes: For whom? And on what grounds?

One analyst noted that a person who molests a child every day for a year might come out as “low risk” because he has a job, while someone who was arrested for public intoxication might be rated “high risk” because he is homeless. The risk factors are not accurate indicators of whether the person should be in prison.

In one case, a white man from Hollywood, FL was quoted as being surprised that his risk assessment score was so low – 3 out of 10. He was arrested two years ago on shoplifting charges. He had a criminal record that included aggravated assault, numerous thefts and felony drug trafficking. He’d spent five years in a state prison in Massachusetts. Yet he was regarded as “low risk.” Less than a year later, he was charged with two felony counts of shoplifting. Today, he says those crimes were the result of drug addiction and that he is now sober. But it goes to show these risk tools are largely inaccurate.

Two other cases profiled side-by-side were also from Broward County. Two 18-year-old girls in Coral Springs happened by a bike and scooter as they were walking down the sidewalk. They grabbed them and tried to ride them down the street. However, they quickly realized they were too big (they belonged to a 6-year-old) and they dropped them. Just then, a woman ran after them, yelling, “That’s my kid’s stuff.” They were arrested and charged with burglary and theft, for goods valued at a total of $80. In the same neighborhood, a 41-year-old man with a long criminal history stole $86 worth of goods at a local home improvement store. He had priors for armed robbery.

Yet when these two defendants were booked into jail, that computer risk assessment program tallied who was the higher risk, and found that the 18-year-old girl was high-risk – an 8 out of 10. The 41-year-old man was low risk – a 3 out of 10. The young woman is black, while the man is white. And as it was later revealed, the system was wrong: The young woman has not been arrested since, while that 41-year-old man is now serving an eight-year prison term for burglary of a warehouse.

Our Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers are familiar with these scores. We know how they are reached and how they can affect our clients. We also recognize ways to counter them that can help improve our clients’ chances of a more favorable outcome.

Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:

Machine Bias, May 23, 2016, By Julia Angwin, Jeff Larson, Surya Mattu and Lauren Kirchner, ProPublica

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