Should Algorithms that Predict Recidivism Have Access to Race?

American Philosophical Quarterly 60 (2):205-220 (2023)
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Recent studies have shown that recidivism scoring algorithms like COMPAS have significant racial bias: Black defendants are roughly twice as likely as white defendants to be mistakenly classified as medium- or high-risk. This has led some to call for abolishing COMPAS. But many others have argued that algorithms should instead be given access to a defendant's race, which, perhaps counterintuitively, is likely to improve outcomes. This approach can involve either establishing race-sensitive risk thresholds, or distinct racial ‘tracks’. Is there a moral difference between these two approaches? We first consider Deborah Hellman's view that the use of distinct racial tracks (but not distinct thresholds) does not constitute disparate treatment since the effects on individuals are indirect and does not rely on a racial generalization. We argue that this is mistaken: the use of different racial tracks seems both to have direct effects on and to rely on a racial generalization. We then offer an alternative understanding of the distinction between these two approaches—namely, that the use of different cut points is to the counterfactual comparative disadvantage, ex ante, of all white defendants, while the use of different racial tracks can in principle be to the advantage of all groups, though some defendants in both groups will fare worse. Does this mean that the use of cut points is impermissible? Ultimately, we argue, while there are reasons to be skeptical of the use of distinct cut points, it is an open question whether these reasons suffice to make a difference to their moral permissibility.

Author Profiles

Duncan Purves
University of Florida
Jeremy Davis
University of Georgia


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