Black Incarceration and Sentencing: Background information when reading An American Marriage

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An American Marriage

by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones X
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2018, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2019, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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Black Incarceration and Sentencing

This article relates to An American Marriage

Print Review

Black Hands on BarsIn An American Marriage, Roy is wrongly accused of rape and receives a twelve-year sentence. His only crime, Jones writes, was to be a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Indeed black men suffer on both counts: they are incarcerated more often than their white counterparts and receive longer sentences. According to the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites. If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.

African American men also receive longer sentences than their white counterparts. The sentencing aspect of the equation has come under particular scrutiny in recent years. As states try to keep jails from overcrowding, a risk assessment tool has increasingly come into play as a way of helping judges determine length and severity of sentences.

These risk assessment tools work by asking people familiar with the defendant's case questions including number of incarcerations in the past, family history of violence, and more. The problem, many argue, is that no matter how smart these algorithms might be, they still perpetuate existing societal biases. In other words, objective analyses aren't always a perfect predictor for future behavior. In fact, a ProPublica report found that the tool "was particularly likely to falsely flag black defendants as future criminals, wrongly labeling them this way at almost twice the rate as white defendants. White defendants were mislabeled as low risk more often than black defendants."

Machine learning programs, ones that learn as more data is fueled in, are touted as one step ahead in this industry but even though they're expected to spit out impartial decisions, they too are limited by the data they are fed. To put it bluntly, the theory of "garbage in, garbage out" still holds.

There is a push to include ethics in the discussion surrounding artificial intelligence and machine learning systems and hopefully this will be the first step in dramatically cutting bias.

Black hands on bars, courtesy of our weekly.com

Article by Poornima Apte

This "beyond the book article" relates to An American Marriage. It originally ran in February 2018 and has been updated for the March 2019 paperback edition.

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