Google Award Fuels Study of Bias in Prison Decision-Making


THE U.S. JUSTICE DEPARTMENT relies on an algorithmic tool known as Pattern to help decide who gets a shot at early release from prison and who must remain behind bars. But, as NPR reported in January, it turns out the predictive algorithm used to determine someone’s risk of a return to criminal behavior appears to give biased results, treating people of different races differently.

Three Bucknell professors are now at work probing the roots of this algorithmic unfairness. Professors Darakhshan Mir, computer science; Vanessa Massaro, geography; and Nathan Ryan, mathematics, were awarded a $60,000 Google Award for Inclusion Research. Their yearlong project will compare quantitative data collected on 280,000 incarcerated individuals during the last 30 years from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections with the realities incarcerated people describe when interviewed for the project.

“We’re going to integrate qualitative and quantitative tools to amplify the experiences of these incarcerated individuals and identify how we can best achieve the goals of rehabilitation, restoration and elimination of racial biases,” Mir says. “We’ll actually look at the impact of this algorithmic decision-making on the lives of [incarcerated] individuals,” she adds.

Mir, Ryan and Swarup Dhar ’22 have completed part of the quantitative analysis on the algorithms used in existing data. The Google grant will enable Massaro to interview additional persons who have been or are currently incarcerated.

Massaro regards the project as important research for a region where two state prisons and a federal penitentiary are located.

Massaro points out that the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg can be seen from campus. “Prisons, in a very intimate way, are part of our local community, and we want students to think about themselves as citizens and part of this community,” she says. “Lots of people who live in this area work at prisons or are currently incarcerated. So there’s a natural interest on the part of our faculty because of our proximity.”