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points | 10.26.16

On criminal justice and “Civilian Casualties”

Ravi Shroff

D&S fellow Ravi Shroff examines Cathy O’Neil’s analysis of criminal justice algorithms, like predictive policing.

There are a few minor mischaracterizations and omissions in this chapter of Weapons of Math Destruction that I would have liked O’Neil to address. CompStat is not, as she suggests, a program like PredPol’s. This is a common misconception; CompStat is a set of organizational and management practices, some of which use data and software. In the section on stop-and-frisk, the book implies that a frisk always accompanies a stop, which is not the case; in New York, only about 60% of stops included a frisk. Moreover, the notion of “probable cause” is conflated with “reasonable suspicion,” which are two distinct legal standards. In the section on recidivism, O’Neil asks of prisoners,

“is it possible that their time in prison has an effect on their behavior once they step out? […] prison systems, which are awash in data, do not carry out this highly important research.”

Although prison systems may not conduct this research, there have been numerous academic studies that generally indicate a criminogenic effect of harsh incarceration conditions. Still, “Civilian Casualties” is a thought-provoking exploration of modern policing, courts, and incarceration. By highlighting the scale and opacity of WMDs in this context, as well as their vast potential for harm, O’Neil has written a valuable primer for anyone interested in understanding and fixing our broken criminal justice system.

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