Sentencing more biased by race than by class

Yesterday  I was please to be passed along this blogpost from called Uncovering Big Bias with Big Data and written by David Colarusso, a lawyer who became a data scientist.

For the article, David mines a recently opened criminal justice data set from Virginia, and asked the question, what affects the length of sentence more: income or race? His explanation of each step is readable by non-technical people.

The answer he came up with is race, by a long margin, although he also found that class matters too.

In particular he fit his data with the outcome variable set to length of sentence in days - or rather, log(1 + that term), which he explains nicely - and he chose the attributes to be the gender of the defendant, a bunch of indicator variables to determine the race of the defendant (one for each race except white, which was the "default race," which I thought was a nice touch), the income of the defendant, and finally the "seriousness of the charge," a system which he built himself and explains. He gives a reasonable explanation of all of these choices except for the gender.

His conclusion:

For a black man in Virginia to get the same treatment as his Caucasian peer, he must earn an additional $90,000 a year.

This sentence follows directly from staring at this table for a couple of minutes, if you imagine two defendants with the same characteristics except one is white and the other is black:

It's simplistic, and he could have made other choices, but it's a convincing start. Don't trust me though, take a look at his blogpost, and also his github code which includes his iPython notebook.

I am so glad people are doing this. Compared to shitty ways of using data, which end up doubling down on poor and black folks, this kind of analysis shines a light on how the system works against them, and gives me hope that one day we'll fix it.