Smarter Justice

By September 3, 2019 No Comments

By Jessica Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist


Last week, the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission hosted hearings in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to hear from the public about a Risk Assessment Instrument. 

The state legislature mandated the commission to come up with an algorithm to assess a defendant’s risk for violence in 2010. They’ve gone back to the drawing board a handful of times after receiving scrutiny from various groups about the very nature of using a mathematical equations and data that could affect someone’s life. 

I attended the Pittsburgh hearing on Thursday, August 22. About 30 folks in a small courtroom gathered to give their testimony. It’s worth noting, that having a public hearing during the middle of a workday downtown is not ideal when seeking feedback about any issue. 

The experiences and identities of the speakers were varied, but each person made the same ask: scrap this mandate. The Commission claims that the intentions behind creating such a tool include reducing prison populations and giving more lenient sentences; but if you hear from experts, the impact will not match the intent. Nearly 30 criminal justice researchers signed onto a letter criticizing sentencing risk algorithms, and the folks who spoke up at the hearing agreed.

This tool was supposed to make judgments more objective, but it does just the opposite: it statisizes people based on factors like their zip codes, job history, finances, “attitude towards authority,” and other measures that are bound to yield skewed results when black and brown folks are so heavily policed; the incarceration rate for black people is roughly nine times the rate for white people in the commonwealth. A woman representing public defenders claimed that this tool will decrease transparency, while increasing profiling and disparity. Terrell Thomas is the State Organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pa, and spoke about his personal experience being charged for something he didn’t do, and having to take a plea deal because he was facing 10 years in prison. He posited that as a black man from his neighborhood, this algorithm would spit out information about him that could be used against him. Mr. Thomas suggested that instead of using resources to develop algorithms that will be used to crunch numbers about distressed communities, why not put those resources into fixing the underlying causes of distress in those communities?

A student currently pursuing their doctorate in computer engineering at CMU said that while algorithms give the illusion of accuracy and science, they just reiterate bias; the overall response from people opposed to this plan. Senator Sharif Street has also introduced a bill to scrap the mandate: 

“Since the passage of the mandate, the Commission has worked hard to create an automated tool that is statistically predictive of risk and does not show bias against any protected class. After reviewing more than eight years of thorough research and development conducted by the Commission, many, including members of the Commission itself, have serious concerns that such an automated tool is possible.”

Addressing criminal justice in a meaningful way requires a multi-pronged approach. As we see above, using factors impacted by systemic inequality such as location, arrest records, finances, etc. to gauge likelihood of criminality is frankly a criminal use of technology and efforts. 

Rather fittingly, the ACLU has rolled out a campaign this month to address these issues: Smart Justice September is a month of criminal justice reform events to bring awareness, connect resources, mobilize, and educate; this initiative aims to reduce mass incarceration by 50%.

It is misleading to call the US the “home of the free.” Even if we were to reduce our prison population by 50%, we would still boast the most citizens incarcerated of any country in the world. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of imprisoned people has increased by 700% since 1970, outweighing by far what population growth and crime could account for. What’s more, black people experience higher arrests and harsher sentencing for crimes of their white counterparts. In 2014, the imprisonment rates of black me was six times higher than white men, and the rate for black women compared to white women was doubled. Ava DuVernay covered the criminalization and incarceration of black bodies in her documentary “13th,” a nod to the amendment which abolished slavery. But incarceration looks pretty similar. 

The kick off for #SmartJusticeSeptember starts this Friday, September 6 at 6 p.m. at the Student Services Auditorium at CCAC North Side. There will be a screening of When They See Us, a miniseries about the Central Park Five, young boys who were forced to confess to a crime they didn’t commit. After, there will be a panel discussion with Terrell Johnson and Ricky Lee Olds, two folks who’ve experienced and overcome the abhorrent inequities of the criminal justice system right here in Allegheny County. 

Smart Justice’s third event, Inside Out will be on Saturday September 14 from noon-4 p.m. at Repair the World. This is targeted to and will benefit people who are formerly incarcerated, their families and friends, and folks who work with impacted populations. In addition to different resources and services, workshop topics include healthcare, re-entry employment opportunities, and more. 


Check out all of the events for #SmartJusticeSeptember at  https://www.facebook.com/acjusticecollaborative/. Are you a card carrying member of the ACLU PA? If not, join now! Also check out the amazing local organizations are also partners during Smart Justice Month, including 1Hood Media, Bukit Bail Fund, The Isaiah Project, and My Brother’s Keeper. 

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