Controversial Criminal Prediction System Has Colorado Roots

May 23, 2016

Will a criminal re-offend?

A host of data-driven systems have tried to answer that question over the last few decades, to varying degrees of success. Defendants are assigned a "risk score," an easy-to-understand figure that is given to judges during sentencing in many states -- including Colorado.

But ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning news non-profit, examined more than 7,000 risk scores in Florida and found troubling racial disparities. 

  • The formula 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.

ProPublica analyzed scores from an algorithm developed by Northpointe, a company started in 1989 by a Michigan corrections official and Tim Brennan, then a CU statistics professor. 

Brennan told ProPublica that it's important to consider factors that can be correlated with race -- like poverty and unemployment.

“If those are omitted from your risk assessment, accuracy goes down,” he said. He and his co-founder sold the company in 2011.

Northpointe disputes ProPublica's analysis. Read the full piece at

Our lives have changed ...

CPR will not compromise in serving you and our community. Vital news and essential music are made possible by member support.