Justice is supposed to be “blind.” But is race blindness always the best way to achieve racial equality? An algorithm to predict recidivism among prison populations is underscoring that debate.
The risk-assessment tool is a centerpiece of the First Step Act, which Congress passed in 2018 with significant bipartisan support, and is meant to shorten some criminal sentences and improve conditions in prisons. Among other changes, it rewards federal inmates with early release if they participate in programs designed to reduce their risk of re-offending. Potential candidates eligible for early release are identified using the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs, called PATTERN, which estimates an inmate’s risk of committing a crime upon release.
Proponents celebrated the First Step Act as a step toward criminal justice reform that provides a clear path to reducing the prison population of low-risk nonviolent offenders while preserving public safety.
But a review of the PATTERN system published by the Department of Justice in December 2021 found that PATTERN overpredicts recidivism among minority inmates by between 2% and 8% compared with white inmates. Critics fear that PATTERN is reinforcing racial biases that have long plagued the U.S. prison system.
Making PATTERN equally accurate for all inmates might require the algorithm to take inmates’ race into account, which can seem counterintuitive. In other words, achieving fair outcomes across racial groups might require focusing more on race, not less: a seeming paradox that plays out in many discussions of fairness and racial justice.
How PATTERN works
The PATTERN algorithm scores individuals according to a range of variables that have been shown to predict recidivism. These factors include criminal history, education level, disciplinary incidents while incarcerated, and whether they have completed any programs aimed at reducing recidivism, among others. The algorithm predicts both general and violent recidivism, and does not take an inmate’s race into account when producing risk scores.
Based on this score, individuals are deemed high-, medium- or low-risk. Only those falling into the last category are eligible for early release.
The DOJ’s latest review, which compares PATTERN predictions with actual outcomes of former inmates, shows that the algorithm’s errors tended to disadvantage nonwhite inmates.
In comparison with white inmates, PATTERN overpredicted general recidivism among Black male inmates by between 2% and 3%. According to the DOJ report, this number rose to 6% to 7% for Black women, relative to white women. PATTERN overpredicted recidivism in Hispanic individuals by 2% to 6% in comparison with white inmates, and overpredicted recidivism among Asian men by 7% to 8% in comparison with white inmates.
These disparate results will likely strike many people as unfair, with the potential to reinforce existing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. For example, Black Americans are already incarcerated at almost five times the rate of white Americans.
At the same time that the algorithm overpredicted recidivism for some racial groups, it underpredicted for others.
Native American men’s general recidivism was underpredicted by 12% to 15% in relation to white inmates, with a 2% underprediction for violent recidivism. Violent recidivism was underpredicted by 4% to 5% for Black men and 1% to 2% for Black women.
Reducing bias by including race
It is tempting to conclude that the Department of Justice should abandon the system altogether. However, computer and data scientists have developed an array of tools over the past decade designed to address concerns about algorithmic unfairness. So it is worth asking whether PATTERN’s inequalities can be remedied.
One option is to apply “debiasing techniques” of the sort described in recent work by criminal justice experts Jennifer Skeem and Christopher Lowenkamp. As computer scientists and legal scholars have observed, the predictive value of a piece of information about a person might vary depending on their other characteristics. For example, suppose that having stable housing tends to reduce the risk that a former inmate will commit another crime, but that the relationship between housing and not re-offending is stronger for white inmates than Black inmates. An algorithm could take this into account for higher accuracy.
But taking this difference into account would require that designers include each inmate’s race in the algorithm, which raises legal concerns. Treating individuals differently on the basis of race in legal decision-making risks violating the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.
Several legal scholars, including Deborah Hellman, have recently argued that this legal concern is overstated. For example, the law permits using racial classifications to describe criminal suspects and to gather demographic data on the census.
Other uses of racial classifications are more problematic. For example, racial profiling and affirmative action programs continue to be contested in court. But Hellman argues that designing algorithms that are sensitive to the way that information’s predictive value varies across racial lines is more akin to using race in suspect descriptions and the census.
In part, this is because race-sensitive algorithms, unlike racial profiling, do not rely on statistical generalizations about the prevalence of a feature, like the rate of re-offending, within a racial group. Rather, she proposes making statistical generalizations about the reliability of the algorithm’s information for members of a racial group and adjusting appropriately.
But there are also several ethical concerns to consider. Incorporating race might constitute unfair treatment. It might fail to treat inmates as individuals, since it relies upon statistical facts about the racial group to which they are assigned. And it might put some inmates in a worse position than others to earn early-release credits, merely because of their race.
Despite these concerns, we argue there are good ethical reasons to incorporate race into the algorithm.
First, by incorporating race, the algorithm could be more accurate across all racial groups. This might allow the federal prison system to grant early release to more inmates who pose a low risk of recidivism while keeping high-risk inmates behind bars. This will promote justice without sacrificing public safety – what proponents of criminal justice reform want.
Furthermore, changing the algorithm to include race can improve outcomes for Black inmates without making things worse for white inmates. This is because earning credits toward early release from prison is not a zero-sum game; one person’s eligibility for the early release program does not affect anyone else’s. This is very different from programs like affirmative actionin hiring or education. In these cases, positions are limited, so making things better for one group necessarily makes things worse for the other group.
As PATTERN illustrates, racial equality is not necessarily promoted by taking race out of the equation – at least not when all participants stand to benefit.
There are moments in everyone’s life when the question of purpose will come up. Discovering, pursuing, and fulfilling purpose is one of the greatest achievements that can happen to a human life.
When you understand and know your purpose, it becomes easy to know what direction you need to take to manifest and walk in it.
In Ezra 7, we are introduced to Ezra who had devoted himself to the study and observance of the law of the Lord and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel. Ezra was a teacher, and he loved teaching. He found his purpose in teaching and learning the law, and sharing that with others.
His commitment to this purpose brought such favor from God which caused King Artaxerxes to write a letter of his approval of him and funded him adequately as he went to Jerusalem.
A lot of times we stress out and worry about where our provision will come from when in reality, the provision is always connected to purpose. It is wise to set time, energy, and focus in discovering and committing ourselves to what we have been destined to do in this life.
You have a specific reason for being alive, God has a destiny for you
Your purpose will not be difficult for you because purpose motivates. You are graced for it
Discovering your purpose does not mean you will have all the answers, however, you will sense a strength and confidence to pursue it even if you are not sure how it will end
God will place confirmation and signs on your path to encourage you that you are on the right track. This will come through unexpected provision, favor for open doors, kindness from people with influence who can bless you to fulfill your destiny. Make sure you stay alert and avoid sabotaging yourself through fear or pride
Ezra was a teacher, that was his purpose and he committed to it. God blessed him because he was walking in his purpose. The favor that was bestowed upon him allowed that purpose to come to fruition by touching so many lives by his obedience to his call.
Do not give up on your purpose, do not look down on it. Even if other people do not understand it, your purpose is worth pursuing. You are an answered prayer. Someone is waiting for you to manifest your purpose.
This week, reveal to me my purpose. Remind me why I am here. Open my eyes to see clearly what I need to do to fulfill my destiny. Grace me with the courage to receive your favor and provision to pursue my purpose without fear. Let me be a testimony like Ezra by committing to the reason you have created me. I know you will reveal to me and guide me because I desire to leave a great legacy.
BLACK HISTORY DETECTIVE: Northwestern University professor Dylan C. Penningroth was named one of 2012’s MacArthur Fellows. His ‘Genius Award’ will facilitate his ongoing study of ways that African American slaves participated in the legal realm of public life, even before emancipation. (Photo: Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
The annual announcement of the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” Award winners always offers us a moment to pause and marvel at the richness and unconventionality of the intellectual and artistic game changers among us. They are scientists and poets, musicians and mathematicians, filmmakers and neurosurgeons. Their backgrounds are as varied as their vocations. But they all share a common creative brilliance. Each of the 23 award recipients, chosen for their unique intellectual contributions to society and culture, was awarded an unrestricted $500,000 grant to celebrate and support their work. (Ah, wouldn’t it be nice if the MacArthur judges were fans of UrbanFaith?)
For those of us who follow such things, each year there are usually one or two winners who especially stand out among the honorees and grab your interest. Last year, for me, it was Jeanne Gang, the Chicago-based architect whose adventurous and eco-friendly designs led the MacArthur judges to observe that she challenges “the aesthetic and technical possibilities of the art form.”
Of the 23 honorees announced this week, it was the work of historian Dylan Penningroth that caught my immediate attention. Penningroth, a 41-year-old associate professor of history at Northwestern University, explores the concepts of property ownership as it related to African American life under slavery and during the era following slavery’s abolition. “I study the ownership of property by slaves,” he says in a video at the MacArthur website. “I wanted to figure out how was it that slaves were able to own property when they themselves were property.”
Consequently, Penningroth has spent thousands of hours digging into historical court records, sermons, and slave narratives to piece together the antebellum and post-antebellum experience of black Americans. His research reveals a surprisingly robust participation of African American slaves in public life — owning land, getting married, making contracts, suing people. Penningroth explains, “The thing that studying law during this period has shown me is that African Americans were in it. They were participating in it. … As long as those claims didn’t threaten white supremacy, many whites were perfectly happy to let them make those claims.”
By studying this obscured aspect of the African American experience, Penningroth is breaking new ground in American history and revealing important antecedents to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Chicago Tribune culture critic Howard Reich keenly recognizes this dimension. He writes of Penningroth’s work, “Though at first glance this might seem like merely a historical curiosity, in fact it points to a people strategizing under oppressive circumstances and setting the stage for expanding their rights in the 20th century.”
Penningroth also draws important connections between the early participation of African Americans in the law and the gradual development of the black church. According to Penningroth in the Tribune interview, the descendants of freed slaves “used the law to build the independent black church. We think of the church as the seed of the civil rights movement, and it was that. But the church was also a legal institution.” Though whites owned the church buildings during the slavery era, once emancipation arrives, the law allows black people to “build this religious institution, which is so central to black history,” adds Penningroth. “At the same time, building the black church pulls them into the law.”
As Penningroth continues his research, no doubt with added impetus from his newly conferred MacArthur grant, his work bears watching. “This fellowship is enormously important to me,” he says, clearly grateful. “It’s going to make it possible for me to take a story that might otherwise be limited in time and space and make it a bigger story.” A story that sheds new light not only on African American history, but American history.
MASS REPEAL: Calls for the dismantling of President Obama’s signature healthcare legislation have gone into overdrive since the Supreme Court ruled the law as constitutional last month. (Jonathan Ernst/Newscom)
The federal government has not taken over health care. The federal government has taken over access to health care. There is a difference.
When I was a student at Morehouse College in the early 1970s, activists launched a campaign to address the shortage of African American doctors in the state of Georgia. They produced bumper stickers that asked “Only 100 Black doctors in Georgia?” with a map of the state’s 139 counties in the background. With many of those 100 doctors concentrated in urban areas such as Atlanta, people voiced clear concern over access to health care for thousands of African Americans in rural, poor and remote areas. Morehouse College President Hugh Gloster responded to this concern by founding the Morehouse School of Medicine, which joined Howard University Medical School, Meharry Medical College and the Charles Drew School of Medicine (similarly founded to address access issues in the Los Angeles area) as the nation’s only predominantly Black medical schools.
Were the government to have taken over health care, the government would be proffering medical diagnoses, prescribing medicine, and performing surgery. This is not the case. What the Supreme Court’s ruling upheld on June 28 was not government-controlled health care, but a federal system that expands access to health care for millions of Americans, mostly poor and many people of color. In a country where national strength finds measure on barometers of military might and economic prosperity, Scripture connects a nation’s well being to its care for the poor. In the fifth chapter of the biblical book bearing his name, Jeremiah challenges his nation, saying:
5:26 For among my people are found wicked men: they lay wait, as he that setteth snares; they set a trap, they catch men.
5:27 As a cage is full of birds, so are their houses full of deceit: therefore they are become great, and waxen rich.
5:28 They are waxen fat, they shine: yea, they overpass the deeds of the wicked: they judge not the cause, the cause of the fatherless, yet they prosper; and the right of the needy do they not judge.
5:29 Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord: shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?
And among the judgments God speaks through Ezekiel, health care stands prominently:
34:4 The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.
Interestingly, the arguments against the healthcare reform upheld by the Supreme Court do focus on the problem of systemic access, and the price to be paid for it — whether the price is monetary in the form of the penalty for failure to carry health insurance or individual liberty in the form of governmental coercion. Yet in both cases, the plight of the poor and needy, the sick and infirm, goes unaddressed. How to make health care accessible for those on the margins of society receives little attention from those who would dismantle “Obamacare.” Promises to repeal the legislation without offering a clear alternative for how we as a nation make health care available and accessible to all persons reduces “the least of these” to political pawns, whose lives represent fodder for a political machine designed to appeal to the self-interests of America’s middle class.
UPHOLDING THE LAW: Supporters of President Obama’s healthcare reform rallied outside the Supreme Court chambers prior to the Court’s historic ruling on June 28. (Jonathan Ernst/Newscom)
Such a move must be resisted by President Obama and supporters of the legislation. The president campaigned for much of 2008 by appealing to that same middle class. He has lost some of their support with his championing of this version of reform, but that is precisely because our electoral system makes it difficult to appeal to a moral high ground as a strategy for garnering support (unless the issues revolve around sexuality and/or abortion). Some who have been disappointed by the president but still support him for reelection need to become more vocal in raising this issue above individual self interest to the moral high ground, much as Jim Wallis and Sojourners put forth the notion that poverty is a moral issue in the 2004 presidential campaign.
The question of access to health care ought matter significantly to people of faith. But it is easy to see how a church whose own theology promises personal prosperity apart from systemic issues of justice can miss the mark of its high calling to care for the poor. Indeed, it is as if a central claim of many messages draws directly from the Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter, better known as Reverend Ike: “The best thing you can do for the poor is not be one of them.”
Our ministry to the sick must move beyond prayer and visitation, and our work amongst the poor requires more than acts of charity. Justice questions continue to loom large in a nation with rampant inequality in quality of life, minimized access to maximal care, and economic stumbling blocks that tie the quality of health to possession of wealth. The spiritual gift of healing is not restricted to those in a specific economic category. If God’s divine, miraculous intervention to bring healing cannot be tied to social status, why should not a national healthcare philosophy be similarly non-discriminatory?
The Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act provides the opportunity for the various agencies: government, hospitals, physicians, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and employers to move with plans for implementation. It is good news for many who currently have little if any access to health care.
While many decry the “intrusion of big government,” an unanswered question for Christians who have opposed healthcare reform is “how has the church mobilized on behalf of the sick and the poor?” In other words, could it be that the intrusion of “big government” in part reflects a gaping hole in our mission to care for the least of these through ministries of mercy, prayer for healing, and advocacy for the oppressed? Are we so busy with “destiny and prosperity” that our attentions have been taken from our responsibilities to fulfill Jesus mission in Luke 4 and Matthew 25?
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY UNDER FIRE?: Supporters of religious freedom and against President Obama's HHS mandates on faith institutions rallied in front of the HHS building on March 23. New protest rallies led by Catholic and conservative groups are taking place around the nation. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Newscom)
Last Friday at noon, hundreds of demonstrators gathered on Capitol Hill and at rallies across the nation to protest President Barack Obama’s health-care law and, specifically, the law’s mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives.
Conservative politicians and activists led the charge, with leaders such as Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann declaring, “This is about, at its heart and soul, religious liberty. … We will fight this and we will win.” Bachmann’s battle cry represents a growing movement of religious conservatives who contend that the president’s plan violates their freedom and beliefs.
Growing up, I had the opportunity to attend a Catholic school until my senior year. As a result, I know first-hand the strong commitment to pro-life causes that many Catholics hold. For instance, as a choir member, it was an annual tradition for us to sing at the youth mass that occurred before the Right to Life March, a protest against Roe v. Wade. Abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty were topics that came up regularly in religion class. So it came as no surprise when I heard that 34 Catholic organizations have filed 12 federal lawsuits challenging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ birth control mandate under the Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”).
Under the mandate, employers are required to provide access to contraceptive services as part of their health plans at no cost. However, as President Obama stated during a February 10 press conference, “[W]e’ve been mindful that there’s another principle at stake here — and that’s the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution. As a citizen and a Christian, I cherish that right.” Knowing that many religious institutions oppose the use of contraceptives, originally all churches were exempted from the requirement. Now, that exemption is extended to any religious organization that has an objection to providing contraceptives; in those cases, the insurance company is responsible, not the organization.
To many people, including Christians, this sounds reasonable. So, why are Catholic organizations complaining?
The problem, they argue, is in the definition of “religious organizations.” In a lawsuit filed by Catholic organizations in Washington, D.C., the plaintiffs state that the mandate requires religious organizations to satisfy four criteria.
• First, the organization’s purpose must involve teaching and sharing religious values.
• Second, employees must subscribe to the same faith.
• Third, the organization must primarily serve those that subscribe to the same faith.
• Finally, the organization must be a non-profit.
“Thus, in order to safeguard their religious freedoms,” the lawsuit continues, “religious employers must plead with the Government for a determination that they are sufficiently ‘religious.’ ” Failure to adhere to the mandate could lead to penalties and fines. Since many Catholic organizations, such as hospitals, charities, and schools, employ and extend services to people of different faiths (and many people who claim no faith at all), it would be difficult to prove they are exempt from the mandate based on religion.
“If a group isn’t perceived as ‘religious,’ then they will be forced to provide drugs that violate their doctrine,” says Chieko Noguchi, the Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Washington, one of the plaintiffs. “If the government can order us to violate our conscience, then what comes next?”
But don’t think that this is just a Catholic issue. According to the mandate’s opponents, it affects all Americans who profess to believe in God.
“One of the central missions of any church is supporting the less fortunate in our communities,” writes Lutheran pastor Joe Watkins in a June 3 editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “With this mandate’s redefinition of a religious institution, many charitable operations will effectively be driven out of business. Under the new law if you are a Lutheran charity and you provide help to or hire non-Lutherans, you cease to be a religious institution. The same goes for Catholics, other Protestant denominations, and all other faith-based organizations.” He also argues that this will not only impact all religious groups, but also those who are either influenced or helped by these groups, since more time would be dedicated to religious background checks for potential employees and clients.
“It is distressing that our government would opt for a coercive and unfair regulation that requires us to make such an impossible choice,” Watkins wrote. “As a church, we have always opposed the use of drugs and procedures that are abortion-inducing. … Under this new governmental regulation, though, just by simply following our beliefs, we will face penalties under law.”
Watkins isn’t alone in his critique of the mandate. Back in February, some 2,500 Catholic, evangelical, Protestant, Jewish, and other religious leaders signed a letter asking the President to “reverse this decision and protest the conscience rights of those who have biblically based opposition to funding or providing contraceptives and abortifacients.” Also, the Catholic Church is planning to invite evangelicals for their upcoming event “Fortnight for Freedom,” which will take place the two weeks between June 21 and July 4 in order to bring attention to religious freedom issues.
In his speech announcing changes to the mandate, President Obama reflected on his first job in Chicago working with Catholic parishes in poor neighborhood. “I saw that local churches often did more good for a community than a government program ever could, so I know how important the work that faith-based organizations do and how much impact they can have in their communities.”
I am living proof of the positive effects of the faith-based organizations that President Obama described. I’m a proud, non-Catholic alumna of a Catholic school who understands why Catholics and their supporters are upset and concerned by the Affordable Care Act’s implications for religious freedom. By defining what a religious organization is, the HHS mandate could potentially hinder Christians from living out their faith with integrity. We, as Christians, are called to serve others no matter what. As a self-professed believer, President Obama should’ve recognized this.
What do you think?
Are Catholics and their conservative allies overreacting to the mandate or do they have a point?