Building Ethical Algorithms

Vol. 14 No. 1

Natasha Duarte (Natasha@cdt.org) is a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy & Technology.

This summer, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case about the constitutional rights of a man whose sentencing decision was determined in part by a computer.1 In State v. Loomis,2 the state used a tool called COMPAS (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions) to calculate the “recidivism risk” of the defendant—the likelihood that he would be rearrested for another crime within two years, based on people who shared his characteristics and background. COMPAS asks a series of questions about the defendant and runs the answers through a proprietary algorithm, which provides a recidivism “risk score.”3 A study by ProPublica found that when COMPAS predictions were wrong, they were more likely to incorrectly classify black defendants as high risk and white defendants as low risk.4

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