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Wisconsin court deems sentencing algorithm constitutional

The secret code doesn't violate your right to due process, according to the ruling.
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Fdastudillo via Getty Images

If you were hoping that Wisconsin would open up the sentencing algorithm it uses to help determine prison time, you're about to be disappointed. The state's Supreme Court has ruled that the use of the the COMPAS algorithm doesn't violate your constitutional right to due process. The decision rejected plaintiff Eric Loomis' complaints that the code is both proprietary (thus preventing him from challenging its accuracy) and was too central to his 6-year prison term. There were "other independent factors" leading to the sentence, the Supreme Court says, and you don't need to reveal the algorithm's source code when it's only one consideration among many.

The ruling also notes that the criteria were based on Loomis' publicly available criminal history, and that he could have double-checked that the questions and answers on the report were accurate.

Needless to say, this decision won't make Loomis or other supporters happy. How do you tell when a judge is merely considering the algorithm's output versus relying on it, for instance? And how do you reconcile this decision with those from other courts, such as when a Minnesota court ordered the release of breathalyzer source code? As TechDirt says, there's a worry that only extreme recommendations will trigger concerns about dependence on the algorithm. You might not spot biases like racism or sexism simply because the data seems reasonable on the surface.

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