Judges in the Philadelphia court system are now taking advantage of powerful new computer models to help determine how much jail time an offender should get.
Computers have been forecasting weather and economic trends for years, but applying algorithms to human behavior is relatively new.
“This all comes about because of new developments in statistics and computer science that are available to us that really weren’t five or ten years ago,” says University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Berk, a pioneer in the field.
His forecasts, which use an algorithm to predict whether someone will offend again, have been used by city probation and parole officers for about three years, to decide how much supervision a defendant needs.
Philadelphia Common Pleas Court administrative judge Pamela Dembe says the results there convinced her that the computer model could also be a useful tool in determining sentences.
“It’s not an automatic sentencing project or anything like that,” she explains. “We’re just looking for additional sources of information in hopes that we get the sentencing right.”
Berk, the Penn professor, says the process is not perfect but he believes it will be better than current court practice.