Risk Assessment Tools

Risk assessment tools (RATs) are a specific type of algorithm used to determine “risk.” They are meant to predict if someone in the criminal legal system is likely to do something like get arrested again (sometimes called “reoffending”), or not show up to court if released (sometimes called “failing to appear”).

RATs are used to help judges and magistrates decide everything from bail and pretrial release or supervision to sentencing and gravity of parole or probation supervision.1EPIC: Algorithms in the Criminal Justice System

RATs are based on aggregate data. Designers create RATs by analyzing a dataset, which is often a large sample of historic information about a group of people, and finding factors consistent with the results they are trying to predict.

This means that a RAT’s outcome tries to predict what someone with certain characteristics, such as where someone is from, how many times they were arrested or convicted, or how old they are, might do. They are not individualized for each person.2Brandon Buskey and Andrea Woods: Making Sense of Pretrial Risk Assessments, The Champion

RATs lack the ability to view people as individuals and understand their personal circumstances.3Ellora Thadaney Israni: When an Algorithm Helps Send You to Prison, The New York Times

What is an algorithm?

An algorithm is a set of step by step instructions, like a recipe. Algorithms take data as inputs, analyze the data, and then create a prediction of the outcome.

Some algorithms are simple to follow, and humans can complete the formulas and calculations on paper to see what the predicted outcome would be. Others are far more complicated, and rely on “machine learning” to take complex paths through data that a human would not be able to replicate, in order to predict and learn from feedback on their predictions to refine their outputs over time.4Vyacheslav Polonski:  AI is convicting criminals and determining jail time, but is it fair?  World Economic Forum

They may guide how a computer analyzes patterns in information5Ali Ingersoll: How the Algorithms Running Your Life Are Biased The Washington Post or they may create a formula to process information. They are often created to answer certain questions or predict outcomes, based on what data points they input.

We are surrounded by algorithms all the time in our everyday lives.6Douglas H. Fisher: Algorithms in Everyday Life, Vanderbilt University

They gather information on all of us, based on what we click on and what we buy, to predict what kind of ads to show us online or what kind of shows we might like to watch.7Nicole Nguyen: Netflix Wants to Change the Way You Chill, Buzzfeed News Google Maps uses an algorithm to find the best route8Michael Byrne: The Simple, Elegant Algorithm that makes Google Maps Possible, Vice for your drive home, and Facebook uses algorithms9Greg Swan: The New Facebook Algorithm | 5Tips to master It in 2019, Tinuiti to determine what posts come up at the top of your news feed.

Algorithms also help decide the interest rate for your loans, impact if you get hired, and how many police patrol your neighborhood.10Ali Ingersoll: How the Algorithms Running Your Life Are Biased The Washington Post

For an interactive experience to learn more about algorithms, check out Automating NYC.11Aki Younge, Deepra Yusuc, Elyse Voegeli, and Jon Truong: Automating NYC and (en)coding inequality?