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Data Science should be used with caution

September 16, 2014
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Data science has become the hot and trending topic these days all across the globe. Agreeing to the fact, United States Attorney General devoted much of his recently-published annual letter to the US Sentencing Commission. Holder's letter carries a discussion over the applications of data analytics in criminal justice and stresses on the efforts to use data for risk and needs assessments of offenders.

The newly derived term 'Data Science' generally refers to the process of extracting some type of useful information from a set of data. The application of Data science mainly includes using a variety of statistical methods in an attempt to 'learn' a pattern in a data set and then to copy that pattern for a specific purpose.

According to Eric Holder, there has been an increased effort at the state and local levels to use data in the criminal justice system. In his letter, the US attorney general commended the efforts to use data for risk and needs assessments of offenders before they re-entered into society. It also helps to ensure a smooth transition and decrease recidivism.

Several law experts have also expressed optimism over the application of data science particularly in case of offenders exiting person. They say that it can help such people in overcoming the incredibly difficult task of re-settling back into a normal life after their sentences are over.

Apart from all these positive side of this new kind of science, Holder also pointed out some of its drawbacks in connection to criminal justice issues. He warned against using pre-recorded data for sentencing itself — a practise which recently started in a few states, including Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

While pointing out the risk in use of static and historical data, which includes the education level, employment history, family circumstances and demographic information of the accused, the US attorney said: "This is a dangerous concept because it bases the sentence for a crime on data points that are not integral to the crime itself."

In order to show the race and class disparities in the US criminal justice system, the 2012 data of the inmates in the New York City prison can be studied. It notes that in the year 2012, over 57% of the prison population was black, 33% Hispanic, 7% white and 1% Asian, whereas the population of the city in total included 17.5% black people, 70.9% white, 18.4% Hispanic and 8% Asian.

Such citations can in a way prove that some form of data has always been (at least subconsciously) included as a part of a judge's sentencing techniques. The role personal experience plays in what a judge thinks is a just sentence can also be understood through it.


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