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MICHAEL COARD

Imagine that 19-year-old Jamal from North Philly is about to be sentenced by a judge after having been found guilty of marijuana possession. Prior to his present case, he had been on probation following a juvenile adjudication for shoplifting with high school friends and also for truancy. As he stands before the judge, Jamal listens to him say “Because you’re Black, male, young, and from the hood, I’m going to impose a harsh state prison sentence on you since Pennsylvania’s ‘Risk Assessment Tool’ (RAT) predicts that you’re in the high risk category of possibly committing a serious violent crime sometime in the future.”

Well imagine no more because a proposed new law could lead to such a racist result.

Pennsylvania is considering the implementation of a computer program designed to predict future criminality, thereby determining what type of sentence a judge should impose. But talented attorneys like veteran trial lawyer Troy H. Wilson are not having any of that.

Wilson has been practicing law for 30 years and is an instructor of numerous lawyer training courses. He’s been extremely vocal in warning the public about this dangerous legislative initiative. In his words, this RAT “is a statistical model designed to basically ‘predict’ whether or not a person from a group of similarly situated persons will commit a crime in the future. If this model forecasts that the person has a high likelihood of committing a crime sometime in the future, that person will be placed in the ‘high risk’ category and therefore will receive a much harsher sentence for his/her present crime.”

He added, “The factors considered in predicting future criminality include, among others, gender, age, prior juvenile adjudications, and prior adult convictions along with the present crime the person committed.”

That’s absolutely frightening. It’s also racist and classist, too, because Blacks are routinely stopped and frisked while Whites are not, due to police racism, which leads to more adjudications/convictions of Blacks.

Wilson makes it clear that he “vehemently opposes” RAT as an attorney and especially as a Black man because of racist over-policing and says “it’s a racist version of the 2002 ‘Minority Report’ science fiction film starring Tom Cruise.”

Wilson’s completely on point in making that comparison. In that film, a specialized police unit in DC/Northern Virginia called “Pre-Crime” arrests people based on speculative information provided by “Pre-Cogs” who are three mutated human so-called experts claiming to be able to predict future violent crime. Unfortunately for society, those “Pre-Cogs” make mistakes– as they did when they falsely accused Pre-Cog Officer Cruise himself of a future violent crime.

Once again, he’s completely on point regarding the racist over-policing. And to those who disagree, I ask this: How do you explain the fact that, although Blacks and Whites use drugs at about the same rate, Black users nonetheless are arrested nearly three times more than are White users.

Many other attorneys, including those zealous and dedicated advocates at the Defender Association, headed by the woke and skilled Keir Grey, also oppose it. In a public document issued by the Defenders, the RAT is described as an “algorithm…to identify patterns of behavior based on certain characteristics…[that] would label people ‘low,’ ‘medium,’ and ‘high’ risk[But it has]… an error rate of 30-40 percent. [And] these risk labels are based on a variety of immutable factors like…race…” Moreover, state the Defenders, “The Commission admits it cannot predict with any degree of accuracy the risk of a person endangering someone else. The accuracy of his/her violent crime predictions is, in the Commission’s own words, ‘only marginally better than chance.’”

It gets worse. The Defenders note that the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission also “states that individuals who are Black will be predicted to recidivate 11 percent more than Whites with the same history and charges. In other words, the algorithm used in the tool is predicated on the false notion that people who are identified as Black are more dangerous than Whites.” And it goes from worse to worst. As the Defenders disclose, the Commission “made a unilateral policy decision to err greatly on the side of fear and over-incarceration…[It] decided to weight the results so… the vast majority of errors are falsely labeling people high risk who will never be rearrested. The ratio chosen by the Commission is about 16:1. That means when the tool makes 500 errors, 470 persons who will not be rearrested will be branded high risk, which will likely lead to their wrongful incarceration….”

The Defenders continue by pointing out that “The fundamental problem is that the tool doesn’t predict risk at all. It predicts whether someone will be ‘arrested’ again for any crime in the future or will violate parole and be sent back to prison.

Hannah Sassaman is a Soros Justice Fellow focusing on risk assessment and is also Policy Director at the Media Mobilizing Project, whose mission is to “amplify the voices of communities fighting for justice…” She mentions that Pennsylvania is “a state where almost nine Black persons are incarcerated for every one White person…” In addition to a judge factoring in a person’s race and age, Sassaman reveals that a judge also factors in a person’s “community,” meaning where he or she lives. Clearly, that is unduly prejudicial to poor people who live in high crime areas, meaning disproportionately Black and Brown people. What Pennsylvania needs, says Sassaman, is “more individualized treatment at sentencing, not biased computer programs…”

So what’s the solution? Find out who your state senator and state representative are and ask him/her to oppose this RAT proposal. You can find out your senator and representative’s name and number by calling the Committee of Seventy at (215) 557-3600.

Later, in mid-June, the Commission will issue its recommendation—based on public reactions- to the state legislature for final approval.

(Michael Coard, Esquire can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.)

(Reprinted from the Philadelphia Tribune)

 

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