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Is technology harming or helping criminal suspects?

Mapping Pretrial Justice is a database that uses risk assessment tools to help judges make informed decisions regarding pretrial releases. The goal of the supposedly cutting-edge tool is to reduce pretrial incarceration rates while identifying and eliminating racial disparities.

While the use of the tool has spread nationwide, data from more than 1,000 counties nationwide reveals that most jurisdictions fail to monitor the effectiveness of increasing pretrial releases of suspects. Those finding fault with the system cite little if any evidence of reductions in missed court appearances and new offenses before trials. More alarmingly, racial biases may exist in the system’s algorithms.

Removing the human element?

Bail and release-related rulings are the purview of judges. Supporters of the Mapping Pretrial Justice platform assert that the data provides insight to help judges make decisions based on objective data.

Critics counter that evidence of the success of the platform is hard to find. Many jurisdictions are not using the tools to track the effects on jail populations, a vital component to determine the increase or decrease in pretrial rates.

More alarming is the increase in pretrial incarceration rates in areas that implemented the tools over the past few years. Instead of reductions, jail populations remain constant, with some regions of the country seeing increases. In other jurisdictions, the number of those incarcerated decreased, only to return to levels prior to implementing the system.

Research from George Mason University revealed that while many judges have access to the data, not everyone uses it. Thirty percent of those jurists imposed harsher conditions for criminal suspects recommended for release.

Those not ignoring the tool are using purportedly racially biased algorithms based on ethnic disparities that are inherent in police procedures, specifically surrounding the criminal history of a suspect. The results seem to bear that out as African American, and Latino defendants are consistently identified as higher risk than their white counterparts.

High stakes

All forms of technology are ever evolving with never-ending tweaks and upgrades. However, the stakes involved with Mapping Pretrial Justice data go beyond so-called easy fixes and create high-stakes errors that affect the lives of the accused.

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