BOISE — A bill to restrict the use of pretrial risk assessment algorithms in Idaho is still alive but some major changes are expected.
As originally drafted, the bill would have only allowed the use of such algorithms if they could be proven to be free of bias based on race, gender, or any other protected category. After more than an hour of testimony from people on both sides of the issue, the House Judiciary committee voted to send the bill to the House’s amending order.
The intent, said sponsor Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, is to strike most of the bill but leave intact a paragraph that says information about how the algorithms work will be public and algorithm vendors cannot use trade secrets as a reason not to disclose that.
“It’s not quite as far as we wanted to go, but it would still be a step in the right direction,” Chaney said.
Many Idaho counties use computerized risk assessment systems to assign a rating to someone who has been arrested and help the judge make a determination as to bail or pretrial release. While no problems involving racial bias with these algorithms have been reported in Idaho, reporting by the investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica a couple of years ago found issues in other states.
Chaney said the bill was necessary to make sure such problems don’t arise here. He said people are becoming desensitized to the increasingly intrusive role of technology in everyday life, and he wanted to make sure this didn’t result in technology being used to deny people due process.
“Ronald Reagan said freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” Chaney said. “We did not pass it to our children in our bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on for them to do the same.”
Speaking for the Idaho Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Mark Manweiler said addressing the financial bias inherent in the cash bail system — i.e., a wealthier defendant is more likely to bond out — should be the priority. Manweiler said lawmakers should expect to see a proposed constitutional amendment next year to get rid of cash bail in Idaho, as several states have done, and that groups that represent the bail industry have been fighting against the use of algorithms.
“This is a preemptive strike by the bond industry to try to get your attention and get you against what’s coming,” he said.
Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, tried to get Manweiler to elaborate but committee Chairman Tom Dayley, R-Boise, ruled it not relevant to the bill at hand. Manweiler said after the meeting that he couldn’t say much more other than that numerous criminal justice stakeholders are working on a bail reform proposal.
The Idaho Sheriffs Association also opposed the bill, while the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho supported it. The ACLU sued the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare in 2012 after its use of a computer program led it to cut some developmentally disabled people’s Medicaid benefits. The ACLU won in court several years later. ACLU Idaho lobbyist Kathy Griesmyer said that while she would rather not see computer programs used at all in making bail decisions, adding restrictions such as in Chaney’s bill would help address the group’s concerns about potential bias and abuse.