Machine Bias

There’s software used across the country to predict future criminals. And it’s biased against blacks.

ProPublica, by Julia Angwin, Jeff Larson, Surya Mattu and Lauren Kirchner, May 23

On a spring afternoon in 2014, Brisha Borden was running late to pick up her god-sister from school when she spotted an unlocked kid’s blue Huffy bicycle and a silver Razor scooter. Borden and a friend grabbed the bike and scooter and tried to ride them down the street in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Coral Springs.

Just as the 18-year-old girls were realizing they were too big for the tiny conveyances — which belonged to a 6-year-old boy — a woman came running after them saying, “That’s my kid’s stuff.” Borden and her friend immediately dropped the bike and scooter and walked away.

But it was too late — a neighbor who witnessed the heist had already called the police. Borden and her friend were arrested and charged with burglary and petty theft for the items, which were valued at a total of $80.

Compare their crime with a similar one: The previous summer, 41-year-old Vernon Prater was picked up for shoplifting $86.35 worth of tools from a nearby Home Depot store.

Prater was the more seasoned criminal. He had already been convicted of armed robbery and attempted armed robbery, for which he served five years in prison, in addition to another armed robbery charge. Borden had a record, too, but it was for misdemeanors committed when she was a juvenile.

Yet something odd happened when Borden and Prater were booked into jail: A computer program spat out a score predicting the likelihood of each committing a future crime. Borden — who is black — was rated a high risk. Prater — who is white — was rated a low risk.

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  • Chicago cops begin using algorithm identifying ‘propensity for violence’ to tamp down shootings

    Agence France-Presse, May 27

    The Chicago police department is using a unique algorithm in its battle against armed violence, to figure out who is most likely to be involved in a shooting, either as a victim or perpetrator.

    The computer program takes into account various factors such as criminal records, gang affiliations, gunshot wounds already suffered, or the number of past arrests.

    Its evaluations are used to create a database called the “Strategic Subject List,” which is supposed to help police battle the bloodshed in the city brought on by retaliatory gang violence.

    But the exact nature of the criteria used by the predictive algorithm is secret and controversial. The program’s principal designer Miles Wernick of the Illinois Institute of Technology, did not respond when contacted by AFP.

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