“Uncritical reliance on technology” could lead to wrong decisions in criminal justice warns Law Society

June 4, 2019

The Law Society has published a report on the use of algorithms in the criminal justice system.  

Increasingly, algorithms play a vital role, from everyday purchasing decisions through to the administration of justice. They have the potential to deliver significant benefits to individuals and communities, but this should not be taken for granted. An uncritical reliance on technology could lead to wrong decisions that threaten human rights and undermine public trust in the justice system. Within the right framework, however, algorithmic systems can deliver a range of benefits, such as efficiency, efficacy, auditability, and consistency. Examples of such systems include facial recognition systems, DNA profiling, predictive crime mapping, and mobile phone data extraction.

For these reasons, the Technology and Law Public Policy Commission was created by the Law Society to explore the role of, and concerns about, the use of algorithms in the justice system. The Commission sought contributions from a wide range of stakeholders, including legal practitioners, academics, tech professionals, civil liberties organisations, law enforcement agencies and public bodies.

It has now produced its report. It contains findings and recommendations concerning the use of algorithmic systems in the criminal justice system. It says that the use of biased or oversimplified data can lead to discriminatory decisions, shallow understandings of complex issues and a lack of long-term analysis. At the most basic level, the Commission found a lack of explicit standards, best practice, and openness or transparency about the use of algorithmic systems in criminal justice across England and Wales. Challenges include:

  • Consequences for personal dignity, such as loss of individuality and autonomy and human rights such as privacy and freedom from discrimination.
  • Reduced transparency in decision-making, leading to a lack of proper scrutiny and greater potential for abuse of power.
  • Risks to specific elements of the justice system, such as procedural flaws leading to unfair trials, and complex cases that could establish important legal precedents being managed out.

The Commission makes the following recommendations:

  • A range of new mechanisms and institutional arrangements should be created and enhanced to improve oversight of algorithms in the criminal justice system.
  • The protections concerning algorithmic systems in Part 3 of the Data Protection Act 2018 should be clarified and strengthened.
  • Existing regulations concerning fairness and transparency of activities in the justice sector should be strengthened in relation to algorithmic systems.
  • Algorithmic systems in the criminal justice system must allow for maximal control, amendment and public-facing transparency, and be tested and monitored for relevant human rights considerations.
  • The lawful basis of all algorithmic systems in the criminal justice system must be clear and explicitly declared in advance.
  • Significant investment must be carried out to support the ability of public bodies to understand the appropriateness of algorithmic systems and, where appropriate, how to deploy them responsibly.