AI in the court: When algorithms rule on jail time


By MATT O’BRIEN and DAKE KANG
Associated Press

CLEVELAND (AP) – The centuries-old process of releasing defendants on bail, long the province of judicial discretion, is getting a major assist … courtesy of artificial intelligence.

In late August, Hercules Shepherd Jr. walked up to the stand in a Cleveland courtroom, dressed in an orange jumpsuit. Two nights earlier, an officer had arrested him at a traffic stop with a small bag of cocaine, and he was about to be arraigned.

Judge Jimmy Jackson Jr. looked at Shepherd, then down at a computer-generated score on the front of the 18-year-old’s case file. Two out of six for likelihood of committing another crime. One out of six for likelihood of skipping court. The scores marked Shepherd as a prime candidate for pretrial release with low bail.

“We ask the court to take that all into consideration,” said Shepherd’s public defender, David Magee.

Not long ago, Jackson would have decided Shepherd’s near-term future based on a reading of court files and his own intuition. But in Cleveland and a growing number of other local and state courts, judges are now guided by computer algorithms before ruling whether criminal defendants can return to everyday life, or remain locked up awaiting trial.

Experts say the use of these risk assessments may be the biggest shift in courtroom decision-making since American judges began accepting social science and other expert evidence more than a century ago. Christopher Griffin, a research director at Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice Lab, calls the new digital tools “the next step in that revolution.”

Critics, however, worry that such algorithms might end up supplanting judges’ own judgment, and possibly even perpetuate biases in ostensibly neutral form.

AI gets a lot of attention for the jobs it eradicates. That’s not happening to judges, at least not yet. But as in many other white-collar careers that require advanced degrees or other specialized education, AI is reshaping, if not eliminating, some of judges’ most basic tasks – many of which can still have enormous consequences for the people involved.

Cash bail, which is designed to ensure that people charged of crimes turn up for trial, has been part of the U.S. court system since its beginning. But forcing defendants to pony up large sums has drawn fire in recent years…



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