Texas: Chief Justice Secretly Taking Texans Down a Path that Rice University Professor Says is a Key Reason for Mass Incarceration

PraisTX – the next generation of mass e-carceration?

June 25 2018


For proponents of computerized justice, like Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, it has been a long, hot frustrating spring.  His unyielding support for the use of risk assessment algorithms, called risk assessments, in criminal justice has been a movement wilting like a flower in the hot Texas sun.

The promise of computerizing the bail system is to create the new Shangri-la in Texas where the “bail computers” could simply tell us who is good and who is bad so we would know who to keep in jail, who gets an electronic ball-and-chain and who doesn’t, and what other onerous conditions must be met in order to achieve public safety.

Chief Justice Nathan Hecht

Unconvinced by such flowery utopian rhetoric, the Texas legislature rejected an attempt to implement this no-money bail risk-based system during the 2017 legislative session.  This system, based on a federal system that has tripled pretrial incarceration since 1983, was seen for its flaws and left policy-makers asking, other than trying to do a better job with indigent defendants in the system, what was the problem that was necessitating a constitutional amendment.  So, the bail reform package, including a mandatory state-wide risk assessment tool to predict who to keep in jail, was rejected.

Of course, a litany of articles questioning the risk-based system and the use of the risk assessment tools have been coming down the assembly line faster than the Houston Chronicle’s printing presses. Speaking of, the latest of these articles criticizing what Chief Justice Hecht wants to implement in Texas ran this morning, and is worth a read…

Chron: Rice researcher finds risk assessment tools may increase incarceration rates

In it, Professor Robert Werth of Rice University sits down with the Chronicle to discuss his new study, where he accuses the introduction of risk assessments and the expansion of such assessments across the justice system as having increased generational mass incarceration, not reduced it.

On the issue of whether the assessment could be race and gender biased, Werth said:

“In theory, risk assessments had good motivations behind them to reduce biases, but all they do is reproduce those biases in policing and prosecution. And more problematically, they give these instruments the gloss, the promise of not being biased, and they hide the bias that already constituted them.”

Not exactly the seventh heaven promised.

So, where do things stand in Texas?  The Chief Justice and State Courts are rapidly moving forward in the dark of the night with the statewide roll-out of a new algorithm, that has been approved by nobody but them.  Due process—you know, public participation and the right to be heard?  Nope.  Sunshine?  Forget about it.  And, they are calling it….get ready for it….The Prais-TX System.  What do we know about it?  Not much.

We thought we’d ask about PraisTX to find out how the system was developed, who developed it, and what it looked like.  We submitted a request for records in April, which the Courts are still attempting to comply with, where it was determined that it could be as many as 20,000 records regarding the development of the system – of which 5,000 are soon to be released to us.  Of course, records that the public is entitled to, which the public is unable to receive.  Not exactly a small, preliminary step down the risk assessment path either.

Nonetheless, as the conversation on big data in our lives comes into focus, what Professor Werth is saying at a global level makes sense.  And if you think that sorting people into a handful of categories and making life harder on them regardless of their level of remorse or level of crime but because they have been labeled bad people is something that is going to work, Werth is right—it hasn’t.  While reforming the bail system is something we have said makes sense, including shortening the time for consideration of bail reductions as was held in Harris County, the PraisTX System is simply another “e-carceration” tool destined for failure.

Standing idly-by and allowing the Chief Justice to computerize the justice system without authorization from the Executive or Legislative branches should be of huge concern.  Especially since, as noted in Executive Director David Slaydon’s 2018 report, there are no specific legislative actions in regard to the PraisTX system like there are supporting many of the other efforts in court services.  Why?  That’s because the legislature already rejected this plan, although surprisingly that is not noted in the report either, nor is it mentioned about the costs of this program and what slush fund they taking from to fulfill it.


Danger Ahead: New Study on Risk-Based Bail Systems Warn of Increase In Pretrial Incarceration

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