Mathematical Algorithms for Bail Decisions Are No Way to Protect Public Safety

Crime is on the increase in New York City, in part, because of so-called “bail reform” which makes it more and more difficult to keep dangerous and violent repeat criminals off the street while they are standing trial for their latest offense. But even before New York City went soft on violent criminals, there were extremists pushing a variety of ways to let violent criminals out on the streets where they can harm and kill more people. Of course, they don’t claim to be soft on crime or indifferent to public safety. Instead, they use soothing and comforting language to hide their real agenda. They speak of “public-safety assessment scores,” “risk assessment algorithms,” and “reducing jail overcrowding.” But these soothing words are designed to hide their real intent and the deadly impact of such “reforms.”

One of the biggest culprits is Enron billionaire John Arnold, who has concocted a mathematical formula (or algorithm) that he claims is supposed to predict whether a given criminal suspect will jump bail or commit another crime while out on bail. It is silly and absurd to suppose that there is some magic mathematical formula that will predict which criminal suspects awaiting trial will go on the run and victimize more people. But the whole point is to give judges a mathematical score that supports the release of more and more violent criminals.

Tragically, this is not a theoretical concern. It is a matter of life and death. In California, for example, where Arnold’s formula predicted that a previously convicted felon with gun violations posed little risk to the public, a judge ordered the violent felon to be released while he awaited trial. While released, he robbed and killed Edward French, a senior citizen taking photographs in a public park. Edward French didn’t deserve to be robbed and shot to death. But thanks to Arnold’s algorithm that is exactly what happened.  Calling it an algorithm makes it sound very official, scientific and reliable — after all it is based on a mathematical formula. But Arnold’s formula doesn’t work. And the truth is no mathematical formula can be trusted to make these complicated calls — where life and death are on the line.

Sadly, there are other victims of this misguided approach to public safety. In New Jersey, Christian Rogers, the father of two young children, was shot and killed execution style by a man who only a few days earlier had been arrested, but was let back out on the street, again, because Arnold’s “public safety assessment” tool predicted that Roger’s killer posed little risk. Again, the algorithm was wrong! Fatally wrong.

Calling it an algorithm doesn’t make it accurate. And innocent people have been harmed and even killed by known violent criminals that we could have kept off the street, but didn’t because Arnold’s algorithm gave judges a “data-driven” reason to release them.

Using an algorithm to determine which violent suspects should be let back out on the street is simply a crap shoot. It appears more aimed at New York’s approach — getting rid of bail for dangerous criminals. It is one thing to reform our justice system in a way that makes it more fair and reasonable, but it is entirely another matter to simply adopt policies that benefit criminals at the expense of their victims and law-abiding citizens. That is what Arnold’s algorithm does!

The truth is, Arnold and his absurdly named “public safety assessment” are playing Russian roulette with your safety. Calling it a “public safety assessment” tool, is a slick marketing ploy, but it bears little resemblance to reality. If truth in labeling requirements were applied to Arnold’s so-called “tool,” it would be called the “hug-a-thug algorithm.”

Sadly, Arnold is using the wealth he accumulated at Enron to fund his own nonprofit organization that promotes his insanely named “public safety assessment” tool. And because he’s got a lot of money, he’s been able to get scores of jurisdictions across the nation to adopt his “hug-a-thug algorithm.”

But the time has come to toss this lousy deadly tool in the trash. Some argue that it is simply a tool to help judges make decisions. But the reality is it’s just a system that spits out results designed to encourage judges to release more and more known felons. And it will produce more and more victims of violence.

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