Here Come da Algorithm

“Here Come da Judge” was a regular sketch on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, done in the first season by Pigmeat Markham and in subsequent seasons by Sammy Davis, Jr.

If that sketch were to be brought back to life today on a show like Saturday Night Live, perhaps a better name might be “Here Come da Algorithm”.

According to a story in today’s New York Times, in courtrooms across the country, judges are turning to computer algorithms when deciding whether defendants awaiting trial must pay bail or can be released without payment.

Bail decisions have traditionally been made by judges relying on intuition and personal preference, in a hasty process that often lasts just a few minutes. Research shows that algorithms are powerful tools for combating the capricious and biased nature of such human decisions.

To combat such arbitrariness, judges in some cities now receive algorithmically generated scores that rate a defendant’s risk of skipping trial or committing a violent crime if released. Judges are free to exercise discretion, but algorithms bring a measure of consistency and evenhandedness to the process.

The use of these algorithms often yields immediate and tangible benefits: Jail populations, for example, can decline without adversely affecting public safety.

Other studies have shown how data and statistics can help overcome the limits of intuitive human judgments, which can suffer from inconsistency, implicit bias and even outright prejudice.

The concern with using algorithms is that they are designed by humans, and as such could amplify the biases of those who develop them and the biases buried deep in the data on which they are built.

The authors note that algorithms are not a panacea for past and present discrimination. Nor are they a substitute for sound policy, which demands inherently human, not algorithmic, choices.

However, well-designed algorithms can counter the biases and inconsistencies of unaided human judgments and help ensure equitable outcomes for all.

As usual, the comments offer an interesting perspective on the story, and it seems as if most of the commenters think the use of such algorithms is a bad idea.

I disagree; I think this is just another example of putting big data to use. If there is data out there that can help someone make a better decision (and that is the basic premise of big data), then why would you not want to use it, at least as part of the decision making process.

I like the idea that judges still have the final say in court hearings, but I also like the fact that they are incorporating big data into that final say.

While it is possible to interpret data any which way you want to suit your needs, I think that gets harder with big data. Admittedly, there are problems when using big data, but I think the benefits outweigh such problems.

Who knows, maybe the next Court TV hit show will be “Judge Watson”.


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