Friday, March 14, 2014

Yeah, That'll Work

(Click on image to enlarge.)

Ah, Ted Rall is at it again!  This time his target is the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.  That's a pretty broad target -- the LASD has had a lot of problems the past few years, including an investigation by the feds involving prisoner abuse and taking bribes to smuggle in drugs and cell phones -- but Ted has narrowed things down to the latest idea by the Department.

The county jail system is dreadfully over-crowded, primarily because the state prison system was ordered by a federal judge to reduce the prison population because of over-crowding.  So the state system just passed on a whole lot of prisoners to the various county jails, which is what state government does whenever possible.  The Sheriff's Department is looking to find ways to reduce the number of prisoners in the County Jail  by way of early-release. 

In the past, early release was given to those who had served most of their sentence and had behaved themselves (and, apparently, hadn't squealed to the feds about conditions).  Someone has now decided that there might be a better way to determine who should be released early, a more scientific way.  Dating-sites on line have an algorithm to match people of for dates, and on-line retailers have an algorithm to decide, based on past purchases, what the customers should buy next.  Why not use the computer to decide which prisoner should be released early?

But math can also be used to guess which among yesterday’s bad guys are least likely to reoffend. Never mind what they did in the past. What will they do from now on? California prison officials, under constant pressure to reduce overcrowding, want to limit early releases to the inmates most likely to walk the straight and narrow. ...

Washington state uses a similar system, which has a 70% accuracy rate. “A follow-up study…found that about 47% of inmates in the highest-risk group returned to prison within three years, while 10% of those labeled low-risk did.”

No one knows which ex-cons will reoffend — sometimes not even the recidivist himself or herself. No matter how we decide which prisoners walk free before their end of their sentences, whether it’s a judgment call rendered by corrections officials generated by algorithms, it comes down to human beings guessing what other human beings do. Behind every high-tech solution, after all, are programmers and analysts who are all too human. Even if that 70% accuracy rate improves, some prisoners who have been rehabilitated and ought to have been released will languish behind bars while others, dangerous despite best guesses, will go out to kill, maim and rob. [Emphasis added]

I'm as skeptical as Ted Rall is, and I agree with his conclusion:

If the Sheriff’s Department moves forward with predictive algorithmic analysis, they’ll be exchanging one set of problems for another.

Technology is morally neutral. It’s what we do with it that makes a difference.   [Emphasis added]

Before the County of Los Angeles goes and spends millions of our dollars on this new computer system and on training those members of the department who will use it, I'd suggest they read Ted Rall's column in its entirety. 

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