For those seeking bail reform and wanting to rely on a pretrial assessment tool that uses an algorithm, you may want to think again about that stance. As we wrote earlier, a program in Iowa just ended and there is no clear guidance on what judges are to do now. A bigger issue, however, is the people and policies behind the algorithm.
Former Enron Executive Involved
That’s got to be bad right? The system in place in Iowa is provided by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. For those keeping track at home, John Arnold is a former Enron executive. We don’t want to cast aspersions, but the stench from what down at Enron is still potent enough for anyone associated with that company to be put under a microscope.
Wide Access to Data
What’s worse, however, is that the agreement with the state of Iowa allows for wide access to data by Arnold’s foundation. Some of this information is quite personal and there’s really no need for the foundation to have access to that data at a granular level at all. Algorithms are largely based on a specific type of artificial intelligence referred to as “machine learning.” There is supervised machine learning, which does require oversight by a data scientist, but most of the work that is done in the field leverages unsupervised machine learning to get to the really good insights…like who should be released pending their trial, one would think. You can read more about this Orwellian reality here.
Judges Reject Tool
Despite the resounding support of one of the key judges in Iowa, it was found that:
Judges only followed the results of the tool 26% of the time, the bigger reality is that judges rejected the recommendations of John’s Arnold’s tool 74% of the time. In other words, Iowa judges did not think the tool was evidence based at all.
Now, this was a pilot program, to be sure. But 26% usage means that the algo is currently viewed more as a “suggestion” than anything else. Of course, the algorithm is going to be wrong sometimes too (none will ever be 100% accurate), so it begs the question of whether judges are following it in instances when it would actually end up being wrong.
In short…the whole thing is a pretty big mess. But then we’re seeing that quite regularly as reform-minded groups continue to try to sell us all on a utopian dream that promises never to turn into reality.