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House Bill would prevent racial bias in jail algorithm

Posted at 7:48 PM, Feb 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-13 21:48:39-05

BOISE — Algorithms -- They're used in your Facebook News Feed, dating websites, financial institutions, and essentially everywhere; including jails, many of which calculate risk assessments based on complicated math.

We run into complicated mathematical algorithms every day. For example, Facebook's algorithm is a process that ranks all available posts that can display on a user's News Feed based on how likely that user is to have a positive reaction.

But in the case of jails, algorithms are being used nationwide to calculate risk scores. And in some places, it's leading to longer jail time for certain inmates. Some idaho lawmakers are concerned a person's race could be one of the variables being used to calculate that risk score.

"There are algorithms out there that are being marketed to help try to predict the likelihood that somebody's going to try to either commit a subsequent crime, or not show up to their court date. Some of these algorithms have been shown to have a racial bias baked into them," said Representative Greg Chaney (R) Caldwell.

While no specific instances have been brought up in Idaho, Chaney says it is a problem for jails outside the Gem State.

"Systematically, over hundreds and hundreds of cases, these algorithms ere, consistently, but they don't ere in the same way. They significantly overestimate the rate at which an African-American will reoffend, and they significantly underestimate the rate at which a caucasian will reoffend," said Chaney.

Now, Chaney and other members of the Idaho State Legislature are trying to get ahead of the curve when it comes to any potential racial bias in Idaho's jail systems;

ensuring a more accurate risk score -- a score that is calculated to determine where bail or a sentence should be set, also used to determine whether someone is a low, medium or high risk offender.

"There's a way that it could be put online and used as a predictor for a period of time but not actually be used by the courts to make any decisions," said Chaney.

We reached out the Idaho Sheriff's Association for their input on the bill. They said the association has not taken a stance, as the bill is still in the early stages and they will need to sit down with the committee to discuss everything the algorithm will impact. The bill could receive a full pubic hearing in the coming weeks.