Mcihael Coard

The Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission plans to implement a Risk Assessment Tool (RAT) that could punish young Black men from the hood more than any other group.

And the Commission took one step closer to making that happen when it held a public meeting last Wednesday here in Philadelphia at the Juanita Kidd Stout Justice Center.

The RAT, which stems from a 2010 legislative mandate to reduce judicial bias and mass incarceration, could ironically increase both.

Here’s how: It’s based on an algorithm, which is data designed to predict a result. And it’s the data that’s the problem because that data includes age, gender, community, and employment status.

In other words, because younger people are arrested and convicted more than older people and males are arrested and convicted more than females and poor people are arrested and convicted more than rich people, young Black guys from poverty-stricken neighborhoods will be punished more harshly than anyone else.

If you think I’m exaggerating about the inherent bias of the data, consider the fact the Commission itself concedes its “risk assessments are based [in part] on... professional judgment... demographic factors... [and] employment....”

Who’s professional judgment? Certainly not family members or community members or even extensively evaluating psychologists.

What demographics, meaning particular sectors of a population? Certainly not shoplifting/joyriding private school kids in the suburbs or pill-poppin’ privileged adult sons and daughters of insider trading CEOs.

In addition to the prior concession, the Commission also admits that its “risk scales are not perfect.” Well, duh! That’s certainly an understatement.

Allow me to quote those zealous and dedicated advocates at the Defender Association, headed by the woke and skilled Keir Grey. As pointed out at that public hearing by the association’s policy director Mark Houldin, the RAT has an accuracy rate of only “52 percent,” which he derided as “barely more than a coin flip.”

Even the Defender’s general courtroom opponent, the District Attorney’s Office, opposes the RAT in its present form. Mike Lee, the Director of Government Affairs, who was joined at that same hearing by his DA office colleagues, Director of Research Oren Gur, Ph.D., and appeals litigator Joanna Kunz, stated “The risk assessment instrument, as currently constructed, does not leverage research and data to holistically consider the nexus between people and systems and the future and the past.”

And he added, “The criminal justice system as it exists today reflects historic race bias and class bias.”

In regard to the inherent racism of the RAT, Hannah Sassaman, a Soros Justice Fellow focusing on risk assessment who also serves as Policy Director at the Media Mobilizing Project, noted that the data came directly from “the height of stop-and-frisk.... [And] the Commission’s own data [falsely] said it believed Black people were eleven percent more criminal than white people....”

Despite the fact that the Commission has since revised its eleven percent figure down to four percent, the data in particular and the RAT overall are still just as racist. If it weren’t, it would factor in mass murdering school shooters and nationwide serial killers- who obviously don’t include Jamal and his North Philly homies.

State Representative Stephen Kinsey, the Chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, made it clear at the hearing that he and his caucus members strongly oppose the RAT trap because it “fuels racial injustice” and unfairly “applies higher risk scores to Blacks.”

Chairman Kinsey also analogized it to the pesty auto-correct feature on smartphones that, based on its own internal information- i.e., its own data- assumes it knows more than a live human being who is trying to communicate specific, not generalized, and individual, not group, thoughts. Moreover, as he complained, the machine thinks it knows more but actually knows less and instead of making things better, it makes them worse.

Rev. Gregory Holston of POWER cut to the chase at the hearing by declaring that the RAT’s fundamentally flawed premise is based on “draconian over-policing” in poverty-stricken neighborhoods and Black/Brown communities.

Other influential opponents to this weaponized racist and classist algorithm include the Philadelphia Bar Association, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and Mayor Jim Kenney, just to name a few.

But the strongest and most persuasive opponent at the hearing was Clarise McCants, Campaign Director at Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. She told the emotionally riveting story of her mother who as a teen was repeatedly raped by her grandmother’s boyfriend and gave birth to Clarise and her sister. Later, her mother- due to severe depression and horrific trauma resulting from years of rape- attempted a murder suicide by adding poison to her two daughters’ chocolate milk. Fortunately, everyone survived.

Her mother was arrested on two counts of attempted murder. Luckily, there was no RAT or anything remotely similar at that time to force the judge to lock her up for the 40 years she could have faced. Instead, he used the type of holistic approach referenced by Mike Lee of the DA’s Office and sentenced her to five years probation with long-term in-depth mental health therapy and counseling. Clarice and her sister were reunited with their loving mother.

Join Clarice and the other opponents. You can do that by calling the Sentencing Commission at (814) 863-5729 and expressing your righteous indignation.

But you must do so immediately before the RAT bites you, Black people, and poor people.

Michael Coard, Esquire can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. His “Radio Courtroom” show can be heard on WURD96.1FM. And his “TV Courtroom” show can be seen on PhillyCam/Verizon/Comcast.

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