Algorithmic Risk Assessment in the Hands of Humans

62 Pages Posted: 5 Dec 2019 Last revised: 22 Apr 2021

See all articles by Megan T. Stevenson

Megan T. Stevenson

University of Virginia School of Law

Jennifer L. Doleac

Texas A&M University - Department of Economics

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: April 21, 2021

Abstract

We evaluate the impacts of adopting algorithmic risk assessments as an aid to judicial discretion in felony sentencing. We find that judges' decisions are influenced by the risk score, leading to longer sentences for defendants with higher scores and shorter sentences for those with lower scores. However, despite explicit instructions that risk assessment was supposed to lower prison populations, there was no net reduction in incarceration. Nor do we detect any public safety benefits from its use. We document racial disparities both in the risk score and in its application: judges are more likely to follow the leniency recommendations associated with the risk score for White defendants than for Black. However, sentencing in Virginia was already quite racially disparate and risk assessment use neither exacerbated nor ameliorated the differences. Risk assessment did, however, increase relative sentences for young defendants. We explore several theories around human-machine interaction to better understand our results: conflicting objectives, learning through use, adopters versus nonadopters, and ineffective use of information.

Keywords: risk assessment, algorithms, sentencing

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Stevenson, Megan and Doleac, Jennifer L., Algorithmic Risk Assessment in the Hands of Humans (April 21, 2021). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3489440 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3489440

Megan Stevenson (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

Jennifer L. Doleac

Texas A&M University - Department of Economics ( email )

5201 University Blvd.
College Station, TX 77843-4228
United States

HOME PAGE: http://jenniferdoleac.com/

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