Racist Algorithms or Systemic Problems? Risk Assessments and Racial Disparities [2020]

As recent and historical events attest, racial and ethnic disparities are widely engrained into the justice system. Recently, scholars and policymakers have raised concerns that risk assessment instruments may exacerbate these disparities. While it is critical that risk instruments be scrutinized for racial bias, some concerns, though well-meaning, have gone beyond the evidence. This article explains what it means for an instrument to be “biased” and why instruments should not all be painted with the same brush (some will be more susceptible to bias than others). If some groups get apprehended more, those groups will score higher on non-biased, well-validated instruments derived to maximize prediction of recidivism because of mathematics. Thus, risk instruments shine a light on long-standing systemic problems of racial disparities. This article concludes with suggestions for research and for minimizing disparities by ensuring that systems use risk assessments to avoid unnecessary incarceration while allowing for structured discretion.

Gina M. Vincent, Jodi L. Viljoen
Criminal Justice and Behavior, September 10, 2020