December 11, 2018, Reuben Jones - Billy Penn
What did Walt Whitman mean when he wrote “I am large, I contain multitudes”? The famous words have many interpretations, and one of them is expressed in this quote from Bryan Stevenson, the groundbreaking civil rights lawyer: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system should look at people like me as containing those multitudes — instead of just as a statistic. Right now, the Pa. Commission on Sentencing is getting ready to do just that: to turn people convicted of crimes into ones and zeroes.
The commission was given a legislative mandate to build an algorithm to help judges sentence convicted people. The algorithm is designed to estimate who will be convicted again of a crime within three years of release. As the Philadelphia Defenders Association wrote for PennLive last week, the original purpose of the tool was “to assist judges in identifying those “with the lowest probability of being re-convicted of a serious crime.”
In other words, this tool was supposed to identify individuals at risk of receiving unduly harsh sentences.
But instead of developing an algorithm to send more people safely home, saving their communities money and distress, the commission has built one that could massively increase incarceration in the state. It’s also likely to exacerbate racial disparities that are already stark. In the Pennsylvania prison system, there are nine Black men for every white one.