Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Sidesteps Important Algorithmic Justice Issue

September 7, 2022

In an opinion published yesterday in Rodriguez v. Massachusetts Parole Board, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declined to decide whether the Parole Board’s use of a risk-assessment instrument violated a parole applicant’s constitutional rights. The Court avoided answering this question by adopting an extremely deferential stance: the Court has jurisdiction to review whether certain factors about the applicant were considered but no jurisdiction to review how those factors were considered.

In the case, Mr. Rodriguez challenged the Parole Board’s repeated decisions to deny him parole based on a risk-assessment tool that deemed him at a high risk to reoffend. Mr. Rodriguez—who has been in jail for decades after being convicted for a crime he committed when he was 16—argues that the Parole Board did not properly consider factors that lessen the chance that someone re-offends, such as advanced age, good behavior, and other factors that apply to Mr. Rodriguez. The Parole Board refused to let Mr. Rodriguez or the public examine whether and how the risk-assessment instrument considers such factors. They provided no information about why the tool deemed Mr. Rodriguez high-risk, whether it was calibrated to return accurate results for people incarcerated when they were young, or whether it has been tested for accuracy in general.

EPIC submitted an amicus brief explaining to the Court that statistics-based tools must be validated for each group of people on which they are used, and the results of those tests must be disclosed so the public can determine whether the tools are accurate and fair. EPIC urged the Court to rule that until such steps were taken, the Parole Board could not refuse parole based on the outcome of the risk-assessment instrument. But the Court’s adoption of a deferential position means that it did not touch these issues.

EPIC regularly works on issues at the intersection of AI and human rights.

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