San Francisco turns to artificial intelligence to reduce bias in criminal justice system
While riding the train in San Francisco three years ago, a white man told an African-American man that he smelled bad and should move away from him. An argument followed, and the African-American man, Michael Smith, was eventually tackled by police officers and accused of assaulting them.
The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office charged Smith with seven counts, including battery on a police officer and resisting arrest. But after viewing body camera footage, a jury acquitted Smith, then 23, on most of the charges, and the prosecutors dropped the other counts. Smith’s lawyer said he does not believe a white person would have been arrested or prosecuted.
While the district attorney’s office disagreed with that assessment of the case, George Gascón, the district attorney, has acknowledged that a disproportionate number of African Americans are prosecuted in the city, which led him to ask a troubling question: To what extent does bias affect the work of prosecutors?
As a result, the office has begun experimenting with an approach it describes as “blind charging,” which prevents prosecutors in one of the nation’s busiest district attorney’s offices from seeing demographic information before making an initial decision on whether to charge someone.
Criminal justice experts said San Francisco appeared to be the first such office in the nation to test that approach.
“The question we want to ask ourselves is, ‘Would you charge based just on the behavior, without the race and other demographic information?’” Gascón said. “We wanted to see what might be causing a disparate application of the law.”
In recent weeks, the office has begun by removing details — like race and names — from police reports before turning those cases over to prosecutors to decide whether to press charges. Starting in July, the office intends to employ computer software designed by Stanford University researchers to redact a suspect’s race and name, and that of victims. Also removed will be locations where crimes were said to have been committed.
The only information prosecutors will initially have access to is an officer’s incident report, which generally includes the reason someone was stopped before an arrest, evidence that a crime was committed, witness statements and anything a suspect might say.
Only after assistant district attorneys make a preliminary decision about charges would they be permitted to access other information, including race and other demographic details, body camera footage and photos. In each case, regardless of the initial charging determination, all of the evidence will ultimately be reviewed, prosecutors said. If a prosecutor comes to a different conclusion between the first and second steps, that will be recorded and compared to historical data. Prosecutors will also be required to explain what changed their minds, and those patterns will be studied, the office said.
The experiment in blind charging comes as prosecutors’ offices across the nation have been instituting policy changes to grapple with what has been found to be extensive racial bias in the criminal justice system, which has led to disproportionate levels of incarceration among African Americans.
District attorneys in Brooklyn, Dallas County and elsewhere no longer prosecute low-level marijuana cases. Prosecutors in Philadelphia now handle shoplifting as a minor offense rather than a serious crime if the amount stolen is less than $500. And other district attorneys around the nation have stopped demanding bail for people facing misdemeanor charges.