In 2013, 34-year old Eric Loomis eluded an officer and operated a vehicle without the owner’s consent. He was sentenced to six years in prison, a length determined largely by his Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions score. This score outlined he poses a “high risk” to the community.
COMPAS is an algorithm used by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections intended to analyze and determine the potential risk an offender presents to their community, as well as the likelihood that they will commit another crime.
According to the New York Times, “company officials say the algorithm’s results are backed by research, but they are tight-lipped about its details. They do acknowledge that men and women receive different assessments, as do juveniles, but the factors considered and the weight given to each keep as secrets.”
There’s no doubt that crime assessment and analysis is vital to the maintenance of a safe society. Crime analysis can help reveal patterns or trends in crime and knowledge of these trends can help law enforcement develop tactics and strategies to deploy appropriate resources, and can also help inform the public about ways to keep themselves safe. Additionally, there is value in analyzing trends in the character of a supect in a crime. Defendants and prosecutors will frequently use character evidence to illustrate how likely (or unlikely) it is the defendant committed the accused crime.
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But there is a difference between constructing a unique character assessment about a defendant, and allowing a secret computer algorithm to determine the theoretical threat someone might pose to society. COMPAS infringes heavily on the sixth amendment in the Bill of Rights: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state.” How can this algorithm be “impartial” when it was constructed using data and information gathered from an inherently partial society, compiled by inherently partial analysts, and interpreted by inherently partial prosecutors?
COMPAS might be impartial with respect to any one individual, but the algorithm itself reflects the bias of its creator, which may be systematically biased against entire neighborhoods or ethnicities. The algorithm itself would then be responsible for reinforcing and perpetuating those biases, resulting in a grave miscarriage of justice.
The main benefit of COMPAS is that it is easy. It is easy to put people into boxes and quantitatively analyze their character. It is easy to say that one specific recipe for a person is more likely to commit a crime than another. It is easy just to convict everyone who follows that recipe, but it is dishonest. It is dishonest to try to quantify people’s behavior and personality. It is dishonest to create a narrative in which “most crimes” are being committed by “this type” of person. It is dishonest to use equations to determine the life of a United States citizen.
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This program illustrates a growing problem in this country. We frequently ignore the truth about a situation if it does not fit the narrative we desire, and we search for facts — whether true or ‘alternative’ — that advance that narrative.
This past fall, a woman approached The Washington Post with accusations she was in a sexual relationship at age 15 with Roy Moore that ended with an abortion. After further investigation, Post reporters uncovered the accusations were completely false, and they did not report on the unsubstantiated claim. Furthermore, the woman making the accusations was revealed to be working with an undercover sting operation called Project Veritas.
Per their website, Project Veritas’ mission is “investigate and expose corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud and other misconduct in both public and private institutions to achieve a more ethical and transparent society.” In truth, Project Veritas is a non-profit organization that receives millions of dollars in “charitable” donations from people like the Koch Brothers to create corruption in the so-called liberal, mainstream media, and subsequently expose said corruption to generate distrust of these media outlets.
Project Veritas receives funding through Donors Trust, a conservative/libertarian, tax-exempt charity group that facilitates donations for many conservative groups, including the Government Accountability Institute, an organization started by Steve Bannon in conjunction with Breitbart News.
Project Veritas exudes the dishonesty it vilifies at every turn. Its very name is an Orwellian anachronism.
Earlier this year, David Remnick, editor at the New Yorker, presented at Cannes Lions to discuss this era of “alternative facts.” He explained that the circulation of misinformation is “powered by speed and ubiquity.”
It is much easier to develop a distrust in all media corporations, with no exceptions, as opposed to individually weeding out sources that do not provide reliable information. Project Veritas aims to expand the ubiquity of fake news to propagate distrust of media as a whole. While the past couple years riddle with “fake news,” the insidious impact of this phenomenon is that it engenders an environment falsely discrediting and slandering those organizations which are not perpetuating misinformation. This sort of unexamined, catch-all distrust of all media does nothing to create a well-informed society. The casual consumer of news can self-righteously excuse all information that is inconsistent with their beliefs.
In both cases — COMPAS and Veritas — we desire to tame the constant barrage of information. While the sixth amendment does outline the necessity of a “speedy trial,” speedy does not — and cannot — mean cursory. The news which we consume to develop our opinions on vital issues cannot — must not — be ruled by the expedience of propaganda. Expediency cannot overrule reality, and simplicity cannot nullify integrity. If we continue to move through information at a pace which exceeds our ability to process and exercise good judgment, we risk drowning as a society in our dystopian flood of falsehoods.
Cait Gibbons ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying math.