Advocates protest technology that assesses a defendant's level of 'risk' of offending

Protesters say risk assessment instruments are racially biased

Cherri Gregg
August 30, 2018 - 7:29 pm
 Reuben Jones, coordinator of the #CLOSEthecreek campaign, says risk assessment instruments are racially biased.

Cherri Gregg | KYW Newsradio


PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A group of protesters gathered outside of City Hall Thursday to rally against a risk assessment tool that could be used to determine which individuals are jailed pre-trial. 

A campaign called #CLOSEthecreek works to end mass incarceration in Philadelphia and end cash bail. They gathered citizens and other criminal justice reform advocates at a rally near the Octavius B. Catto statute. 

The protesters want to block the city's proposed implementation of a risk assessment instrument, or RAI, which would take data about a defendant and use an algorithm to help the court determine his or her "risk" pre-trial. 

Those found to be "high-risk" defendants would be detained pre-trial. Those considered "low risk" could get access to various forms or levels of supervision.

"Traditionally, they've been racially biased against people of color and poor people," said Reuben Jones, coordinator of the #CLOSEthecreek campaign. He believes the use of data like age, gender, family history, criminal past, education and more could lead to discrimination. "Without using race as a factor, it ends up becoming a determinant factor."

"To allow a computer to determine the lives of those in the system is ludicrous," echoed J. Jondhi Harel, co-founder of the Center for Returning Citizens. He did time himself and said he made changes while on the inside. "If they had a risk assessment, I probably would not be here today."

A risk assessment tool was up for consideration by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing. The effort was part of a 2010 mandate that would implement such technology to assist judges in sentencing. 
In June, however, criminal justice advocates spoke out at listening sessions across the commonwealth, strongly opposing the measure. Their concerns focused on the potential for racial disparities in a state where black people are incarcerated at higher rates than white people. 

Thousands signed a petition asking the commission to reject the assessment tool. A vote on the RAI has been postponed.

"Risk couldn't measure me raising my kids from behind bars," Harel continued. "Risk assessment couldn't measure how watching my parents die while on the inside changed me."

Councilman Derek Green opposes any RAI that would discriminate against Philadelphians. He said City Council will be looking closely at what is used and how it will be implemented.

"As we get rid of cash bail, we don't want to go to another system that is similar, if not worse," Green noted. "Some type of tool needs to be used to determine risk — the question is how do we do that."

Ramon Smith, 19, recited a poem at the rally. He was arrested and incarcerated at age 16. He spent three years behind bars and was released one year ago. 

With tattoos all over his body, he believes the way he looks, where he lives, his criminal past, young age, and the fact that he is a man of color means he'd be labeled a "high risk."

"I've changed my life," he said. "I believe I'm not a risk and anyone else should have the same opportunity. That tool shouldn't be able to label me."

City spokesman Mike Dunn issued a statement to KYW Newsradio: "As has already been stated publicly, the risk assessment tool will not factor in race or zip code. And to be clear, the tool, which is a part of our participation in the MacArthur [Foundation> Safety and Justice Challenge, will be implemented with oversight and transparency to address any concerns in the tool, including about bias. 

"The city remains committed to working with both our criminal justice partners and the community at large to achieve our shared goals of safely reducing the jail population by 50 percent over five years while reducing racial and ethnic disparities in the system."

RAIs have been used to predict behavior of individuals prone to violence. Other forms of risk assessments have been used in schools, within police departments and beyond. Several states have implemented some form of a risk assessment tool.