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Are algorithms a fair way to predict who’ll skip bail?

Algorithms help some judges determine who gets out on bail. "Algorithms are good at narrowly estimating risk, but they can't set policy," says Sharad Goel.

Simple, statistically informed decision rules can dramatically improve judicial determinations, says Sharad Goel. But, he cautions, algorithms are not a complete fix.

Courts nationwide are making greater use of computer algorithms to help determine whether defendants should be released into the community while they await trial. The idea is to accurately determine whether a defendant poses a flight risk or a danger to the community, and reduce the potential for human bias.

San Francisco and Chicago are among the jurisdictions actively using pretrial risk assessment algorithms, says Goel, an assistant professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University.

Goel has studied the use of algorithms in complex decision-making and examined the fairness of such tools and is coauthor of a recent Harvard Business Review article on the topic.

“Algorithms are good at narrowly estimating risk, but they can’t set policy,” Goel says. “They can’t tell you how many people to detain, or whether we should end money bail altogether, as some cities have done. They can’t tell you how much to invest in pretrial services or what those services should be. And they can’t incorporate every factor in every case, so we still need humans to make the final decision.”

Goel recently discussed some of the benefits and complexities of using these algorithms with Vignesh Ramachandran of Stanford Engineering. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

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