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Baltimore’s bail algorithm may not be working as intended

A CityLab report raises questions about the “risk assessment” tool.

Lady Justice. (Photo by Flickr user Rae Allen, used under a Creative Commons license)

Surveillance isn’t the only area of Baltimore’s justice system that is using little-known technology.
A recent CityLab report details an algorithm used to assign people who are arrested a “score” based on their likelihood that will appear for court, or be arrested again. The risk assessment is used to help officials in Baltimore’s Pretrial Release Services recommend decisions about bail.
Many of the attorneys involved in the cases aren’t aware of the algorithm, according to the report.
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The tool considers criteria such as whether the person has prior arrests, their age at their prior arrests and whether that past arrest corresponds with the current charges.
The idea behind the tool is to help “release low-risk people on their own recognizance and create conditions of supervision for higher risk people,” James Austin of D.C.-based JFA Institute told CityLab. However, that’s not happening, as many people are held without being offered any bail.
The decisions disproportionately affect Black residents, the report states.

If such experiences are not anomalous, pretrial services’ recommendations, based on these risk scores, could be further intensifying racial disparities already present in the Baltimore bail system.

Black residents in Baltimore, for example, would seem to be far more likely to receive high risk scores under this risk assessment algorithm, which takes into account number of arrests (not convictions), earliest age of arrest, and drug arrests.

The story adds a tech element to the debate over whether Maryland’s bail system should be overhauled, since many defendants cannot afford bail. Attorney General Brian Frosh issued an opinion in October stating that the system is “likely unconstitutional,” the Baltimore Sun reported.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, city government is in the process of implementing a risk assessment tool for bail and grappling with some difficult questions in the process.

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