Racial Justice Group Testifies That Pennsylvania’s Proposed Risk Assessment Tool is Racist

By Shani Saxon Dec 13, 2018

Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization, is shining a light on the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing’s troubling risk assessment tool. The tool is a computer algorithm designed to predict a person’s potential for future criminality. It is there to essentially gauge who should be held in prison, versus who is low-risk enough for release.

The problem, the organization says, is that the program uses biased data that ultimately results in harsher punishments for Black and Brown people. Clarise McCants, criminal justice campaign director for Color of Change, testified on Wednesday (December 12) against lawmakers’ use of the tool in Pennsylvania courts. McCants spoke to Colorlines about her group’s mission to end the racist practice, which she says is happening all over the country. "Many states, including California and New Jersey, use risk assessment tools in place of cash bail. They’re used to determine who should be released and who should stay in jail pre-trial," she says.

Each state, however, has different criteria for determining who should be held behind bars. "Some states look at age," McCant explains. "Some of them consider your zip code and where you live as a  possible negative risk factor. Others look at your arrest record, or if you are at risk of being arrested to determine risk factor."

Those differences, however, all lead to the same racist outcome. "All of these risk assessment tools aren’t that accurate, but even if they were, they are just a mirror of what the criminal justice system already looks like,” she says. "They are re-perpetuating the racism that already exists in the system. They may not consider race as a factor in the tool, but they discreetly target Black and Brown people. We are over policed, and when we do get charged, we get the highest charges."

Color of Change said in an emailed statement that the risk assessment tool is "only 52 percent accurate in calculating high risk. This is especially dangerous in a state like Pennsylvania, that incarcerates Black people at one of the highest rates in the country." The organization submitted a petition to the court, urging it to stop using these tools immediately. 

In addition to McCant’s testimony, the Pennsylvania sentencing risk assessment hearings will include testimonies from lawyers and data scientists. McCant, who believes her organization is "on the precipice of a victory," insists this is just the beginning. "We will set a huge precedent for other states in this fight," she says. “It’s really important for lawmakers to stop hiding behind a tool that is perpetuating racial bias." A decision from the court is expected in March 2019.