California replaces cash bail with algorithms

2 min read

Last week, (August 28) California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that will see cash bail replaced by an algorithm. Set to take effect in October 2019, it will mean that if you’re accused of a crime you won’t simply be able to pay money as a form of collateral before your trial. Instead, you’ll be ‘graded’ by an algorithm according to how likely you are to abscond or commit another crime.

However, the algorithm won’t make the final decision – the grade is rather a guide for a county official who will then decide whether to grant bail.

In a statement, Brown said that Today, “California reforms its bail system so that rich and poor alike are treated fairly”. However, there are plenty who disagree that that will be the case.

Criticism of the legislation

The move has been met with criticism from civil liberties groups and AI watchdogs. Although cash bail has long drawn criticism for making wealth the arbiter of someone’s freedom, placing judicial decision making in the hands of algorithms could, these groups argue, similarly discriminate and entrench established injustice and social divisions.

Rashida Richardson, policy director at AI think tank AI Now, speaking to Quartz, said that “a lot of these criminal justice algorithmic-based systems are relying on data collected through the criminal justice system.” This means, Richardson explains, “you have data collection that’s flawed with a lot of the same biases as the criminal justice system.”

Raj Jayadev, from Silicon Valley Debug also speaking to Quartz, said that the legislation will “lead to an increase in pretrial detention.”

The details have yet to be finalized, but it’s believed that the bill’s impact will be reviewed in 2023. The most crucial element for this project to work is transparency – whether law makers and law enforcement provide transparency on the algorithm and how its used will remain to be seen.

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