Dozens of speakers at hearing assail Pa. plan to use algorithm in sentencing

A cross-section of Philadelphia’s criminal justice community spoke out Wednesday against deploying an algorithm to influence how people convicted of crimes in Pennsylvania are sentenced, saying the proposal by a state agency could cement racial inequities and perpetuate other flaws in a criminal justice system in need of reform.

Dozens of speakers, including community activists, defense attorneys, and officials from the District Attorney’s Office said the tool — proposed by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing — was defective, mislabeled, and even dangerous, a faulty metric that could improperly influence judges or lead to overly harsh sentences, especially against people of color.

Mark Houldin, policy director for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said the algorithm — which would weigh a number of variables to assess the chances someone might reoffend in the future — would “perpetuate incarceration.” Troy Wilson, a Philadelphia defense attorney, said it could be “tantamount to sentencing someone based on mere chance.”

Jondhi Harrell, founder of the Center for Returning Citizens, an advocacy group, said, “We would ask that the basic humanity of our people not be reduced to a number.”

Their remarks came during a public hearing on the issue at the Criminal Justice Center in Center City, one of three listening sessions across the state that the Sentencing Commission is holding before voting on whether to approve the risk assessment metric.

Risk assessment tools in the criminal justice system are not new: Philadelphia’s Adult Probation and Parole Department uses data to help manage its supervision program, and other jurisdictions use them to help inform decisions about bail, sentencing, and parole. But the topic is controversial, with proponents saying such programs can provide an unbiased, objective method for evaluating cases, and critics saying they simply reinforce or enhance a system’s existing flaws.

The development of Pennsylvania’s sentencing risk-assessment tool was mandated by a 2010 state Senate bill that enacted reforms to try to stem a swelling prison population. The idea behind the sentencing risk assessment was to provide a measurement on how likely a person would be to reoffend, in hope that those viewed as “low risk” could be diverted from prison or given a shorter sentence. The Sentencing Commission has spent eight years developing its potential rubric.

As currently constructed, the risk assessment would assign someone convicted of a crime a risk level of reoffending based on different “risk scales” and “outcome measures,” according to the Sentencing Commission. Factors would include age, gender, and the number and types of prior convictions.

The committee said the assessment alone should not be used as a factor to add or subtract prison time, but should help judges determine whether to seek more information before imposing a sentence.

But Houldin, of the Defender Association, said that even with that caveat, the tool seemed likely to influence judges and lead them to hand out stiffer sentences to people labeled “high risk” based on flawed metrics.

Charles M. Gibbs, an attorney and president of the Barristers’ Association of Philadelphia, an organization of black lawyers, called the program “junk science.”

“This tool backs racial discrimination into the case,” Gibbs said. “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Mike Lee, interim director of legislation and government affairs for District Attorney Larry Krasner, said, “We do have concerns about this instrument, and we look forward to helping develop the most useful instrument possible … to improve public safety and end mass incarceration.”

Not one speaker during the three-hour hearing voiced support for the tool, which the Sentencing Commission is scheduled to vote on next week. It will become law unless the legislature takes action to stop it, something State Sen. Sharif Street (D., Phila.) — a member of the sentencing commission and an opponent of the tool — said he would consider.