A look at algorithms: A slippery slope in criminal law?

A neural network, notes a recent media report, “creates connections on its own.”

And that reality can be fundamentally troublesome when such networks — better known in computer parlance as algorithms — are used by courts in Texas and nationally to inform judicial decisions on things like flight risk, recidivism and the appropriate sentence to hand out to an offender.

Where algorithms play a role in courts and corrections departments, notes a writer in the national publication Wired, defendants charged with crimes of every type, including white-collar criminal activity and fraud-based offenses, have every reason to be worried.

And here is why: Some algorithms are so exceptionally complex in their artificial-intelligence dimensions that users can be hard pressed if not flatly unable to describe with any clarity how or why they’re relying on the information that is being kicked out for their consideration. And, coupled with that, as Wired notes, many algorithmic processes are the intellectual property of private companies, “meaning only the owners … can see how the software makes decisions.”

That is problematic in the extreme, states Wired, because judges should routinely be able to evaluate and vet the data they rely upon to make decisions that deeply affect the lives of criminal defendants.

“Without proper safeguards,” notes the Wired contributor, algorithms “risk eroding the rule of law and diminishing individual rights.”

Concededly, judges are obviously very busy people, with it being readily acknowledged that they need to rely upon tools that save them time and help them make informed decisions.

A “hidden decision-making process” that flatly lacks transparency, though, and can even be incomprehensible, arguably disservices every participant in the criminal justice sphere, from defendants and their counsel to law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and, indeed, judges.

Put a moratorium on the use of opaque algorithms to guide decision making in the criminal law realm, states Wired, at least until clear standards regarding their use can be articulated and better judicial oversight can be assured.

Such steps, notes the publication, “can reinforce the rule of law and protect individual rights.”

And what is more important than that in the criminal justice realm?