When They Hear Us: Race, Algorithms and The Practice of Criminal Law

10 Pages Posted: 6 Apr 2021 Last revised: 30 Apr 2021

See all articles by Ngozi Okidegbe

Ngozi Okidegbe

Boston University - School of Law

Date Written: April 3, 2020


We are in the midst of a fraught debate in criminal justice reform circles about the merits of using algorithms. Proponents claim that these algorithms offer an objective path towards substantially lowering high rates of incarceration and racial and socioeconomic disparities without endangering community safety. On the other hand, racial justice scholars argue that these algorithms threaten to entrench racial inequity within the system because they utilize risk factors that correlate with historic racial inequities, and in so doing, reproduce the same racial status quo, but under the guise of scientific objectivity.

This symposium keynote address discusses the challenge that the continued proliferation of algorithms poses to the pursuit of racial justice in the criminal justice system. I start from the viewpoint that racial justice scholars are correct about currently employed algorithms. However, I advocate that as long as we have algorithms, we should consider whether they could be redesigned and repurposed to counteract racial inequity in the criminal law process. One way that algorithms might counteract inequity is if they were designed by most impacted racially marginalized communities. Then, these algorithms might counterintuitively benefit these communities by endowing them with a democratic mechanism to contest the harms that the criminal justice system’s operation enacts on them.

Keywords: Race, racism, racial inequity, race and law, racial equity, mass incarceration, power, racial hierarchy, racial subordination, classism, class hierarchy, most impact communities, racial marginalization, algorithms, racial justice, predictive technologies, automation, criminal justice technologies,

JEL Classification: K10, K14, K19, K30, K39, K40

Suggested Citation

Okidegbe, Ngozi, When They Hear Us: Race, Algorithms and The Practice of Criminal Law (April 3, 2020). Kansas Journal of Law & Pubic Policy, Vol. 29, 2020, Cardozo Legal Studies Research Paper No. 645, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3818995

Ngozi Okidegbe (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics