Layers of Bias: A Unified Approach for Understanding Problems With Risk Assessment [2018]

Scholars in several fields, including quantitative methodologists, legal scholars, and theoretically oriented criminologists, have launched robust debates about the fairness of quantitative risk assessment. As the Supreme Court considers addressing constitutional questions on the issue, we propose a framework for understanding the relationships among these debates: layers of bias. In the top layer, we identify challenges to fairness within the risk-assessment models themselves. We explain types of statistical fairness and the tradeoffs between them. The second layer covers biases embedded in data. Using data from a racially biased criminal justice system can lead to unmeasurable biases in both risk scores and outcome measures. The final layer engages conceptual problems with risk models: Is it fair to make criminal justice decisions about individuals based on groups? We show that each layer depends on the layers below it: Without assurances about the foundational layers, the fairness of the top layers is irrelevant.

Laurel Eckhouse, Kristian Lum, Cynthia Conti-Cook, Julie Ciccolini
Criminal Justice and Behavior, November 23, 2018