History of risk assessment, and some proposed alternate methods
A 2002 paper by ERIC SILVER and LISA L. MILLER on actuarial risk assessment tools provides a history of statistical prediction in the criminal justice context, and issues cautions now central to the contemporary algorithmic fairness conversations:
"Much as automobile insurance policies determine risk levels based on the shared characteristics of drivers of similar age, sex, and driving history, actuarial risk assessment tools for predicting violence or recidivism use aggregate data to estimate the likelihood that certain strata of the population will commit a violent or criminal act.
To the extent that actuarial risk assessment helps reduce violence and recidivism, it does so not by altering offenders and the environments that produced them but by separating them from the perceived law-abiding populations. Actuarial risk assessment facilitates the development of policies that intervene in the lives of citizens with little or no narrative of purpose beyond incapacitation. The adoption of risk assessment tools may signal the abandonment of a centuries-long project of using rationality, science, and the state to improve upon the social and economic progress of individuals and society."
Link popup: yes to the paper.
A more recent paper presented at FAT* in 2018 and co-authored by CHELSEA BARABAS, KARTHIK DINAKAR, JOICHI ITO, MADARS VIRZA, and JONATHAN ZITTRAIN makes several arguments reminiscent of Silver and Miller's work. They argue in favor of causal inference framework for risk assessments aimed at working on the question "what interventions work":
"We argue that a core ethical debate surrounding the use of regression in risk assessments is not simply one of bias or accuracy. Rather, it's one of purpose.… Data-driven tools provide an immense opportunity for us to pursue goals of fair punishment and future crime prevention. But this requires us to move away from merely tacking on intervenable variables to risk covariates for predictive models, and towards the use of empirically-grounded tools to help understand and respond to the underlying drivers of crime, both individually and systemically."
Link popup: yes to the paper.
- In his 2007 book Against Prediction popup: yes, lawyer and theorist Bernard Harcourt provided detailed accounts and critiques of the use of actuarial methods throughout the criminal legal system. In place of prediction, Harcourt proposes a conceptual and practical alternative: randomization. From a 2005 paper on the same topic: "Instead of embracing the actuarial turn in criminal law, we should rather celebrate the virtues of the random: randomization, it turns out, is the only way to achieve a carceral population that reflects the offending population. As a form of random sampling, randomization in policing has significant positive value: it reinforces the central moral intuition in the criminal law that similarly situated individuals should have the same likelihood of being apprehended if they offend—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or class." Link popup: yes to the paper. (And link popup: yes to another paper of Harcourt's in the Federal Sentencing Reporter, "Risk as a Proxy for Race.")
- A recent paper by Megan Stevenson assesses risk assessment tools: "Despite extensive and heated rhetoric, there is virtually no evidence on how use of this 'evidence-based' tool affects key outcomes such as incarceration rates, crime, or racial disparities. The research discussing what 'should' happen as a result of risk assessment is hypothetical and largely ignores the complexities of implementation. This Article is one of the first studies to document the impacts of risk assessment in practice." Link popup: yes.
- A compelling piece of esoterica cited in Harcourt's book: a doctoral thesis by Deborah Rachel Coen on the "probabilistic turn" in 19th century imperial Austria. Link popup: yes.