In May of this year, the New York Times ran an article about the use of artificial intelligence in American courts. Some states are allowing the use of a computer-generated algorithm to assess the risk a convicted defendant poses, and using that algorithm to determine the appropriate sentence. Defendants, it seems. are unable to challenge the results of the algorithm because it is proprietary technology, and therefore secret, so they are unable to see how it works and how the results are determined.
I am neither a judge nor a lawyer, but I can see how and why this would raise legal issues, around due process, a defendant’s right to face and cross-examine their accusers, and so on. It also raises serious ethical questions. In both the UK and the USA, prison is understood as serving three purposes: punishment, protecting the public from offenders, and rehabilitation. The sentencing algorithm appears, at least to me, to address only one of these -protecting the public. This is, of course, a good and laudable goal. But should it outweigh everything else? And, unlike a human judge, I very much doubt that the algorithm can take into account things like the rehabilitation opportunities that will be offered to someone in prison, or any feelings of remorse that they might have.
I’m not naive. I know that reoffending rates are high, and that some offenders do continue to pose a serious risk to the public. But does that make it right to leave their fate to a computer algorithm? Can every offender be written off based on the numbers alone? One of the central features of the Christian faith is the belief in the possibility of redemption. Christians believe that people can overcome their pasts, they can – to put it into theological language – repent of their sins and “go and sin no more.” We don’t expect people to do this alone. Christians know that we need God’s help to change at a fundamental level, and we need the help of those around us. Many of those who become offenders come from poor backgrounds, with low educational attainment and few opportunities. What society needs isn’t an algorithm that takes all of this into account and, as a result, identifies someone as beyond hope. What we need is to take all of this into account in how we approach the rehabilitation aspect of prison. Christians also believe that we are all made in the image of God, and as such, all are of value – even those who have done wrong.
Artificial intelligence is coming on in leaps and bounds, and it is finding its way into more and more areas of life, both public and private. In many instances, this will undoubtedly prove to be beneficial, but that doesn’t mean that the use of AI is appropriate in all areas of life. AI may be very good at crunching the numbers and looking at probabilities, but it needs to be tempered with human judgement and compassion, especially when people’s lives and futures hang in the balance.