The Computer Says ‘No’

Written 12th May 2017 by Ruth Peters

With computer technology becoming more advanced and various industries turning to robot assistance in production it should be of no surprise that technology would eventually start to creep into the criminal justice system.

Plans are being made to digitise civil courts, with a view to exploring the viability of moving relatively small financial claims online to streamline the process and make it more effective.


In the last year the CPS and criminal courts and practitioners have all started to work using an online Digital Case System where all parties can access case papers online, edit documents and serve additional papers. All developments so far have simply helped all parties to work more efficiently, with humans i.e. judges, police officers and other parties still making the key decisions in cases.

Bail Decision Algorithm

Things may be about to change. The University of Cambridge has developed an algorithm which analyses crime data and predicts whether an arrested suspect is likely to pose a risk if released from custody. Called HART (Harm Assessment Risk Tool) the program looks at the suspects offending history, gender and postcode and determines the level of risk they pose as either low, medium or high. The system has been trained using 5 years of data.

This data can then be used to determine if the suspect should be remanded on bail or remanded in custody to court. Under the Bail Act the basic principle is that a suspect should be given bail, unless there are substantial specific grounds to remand them in custody. One of the grounds is whether there is a substantial risk of them committing offences if given bail.

Would a Bail Algorithm be effective?

Durham Constabulary is currently working with the development team behind the software to trial the effectiveness of it. Custody Sergeant’s decisions on suspects are being assessed to see if they match the predictions made by the software. So far data suggests that the decisions only match 56% of the time.

The Police Force is aiming to use the software by summer and has stated that the technology was “validated” after forecasts that a suspect was a low risk turned out to be accurate in 98 per cent of cases, while forecasts that they were high risk proved right 88 per cent of the time.

Sheena Urwin, the force’s head of criminal justice, said:

“It’s not the ultimate decision maker, it is a support for the officers and the limitations are it’s only plugged into Durham Constabulary data — not any wider data.”

Would Custody Sergeants follow the Bail Decision?

Its not clear whether Custody Sergeants would in practice go against the decision made by the algorithm or not. It is entirely plausible that custody sergeants may just follow the prediction fearing the consequences if they don’t. Ultimately the algorithm may be the ultimate decision maker for someone’s liberty. It would be easy therefore to predict the Custody Sergeant being marginalised and stating to a suspect sobbing at the custody desk “the computer says no”.

Toby Wilbraham – Specialist Higher Court Advocate

Written by Toby Wilbraham. Toby is a highly experienced solicitor having been at Olliers for in excess of 20 years.  He works as a litigator and an advocate in the Magistrates’ Court, Crown Court and Court of Appeal. Toby prides himself on his meticulous preparation of cases and is often described as a ‘safe pair of hands’ striving to always represent his clients to the best of his ability.

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