Thousands of people are leaving federal prison this month thanks to the First Step Act, which allowed them to win early release by participating in programs aimed at easing their return to society, NPR reports. Thousands of others remain behind bars because of fundamental flaws of persistent racial disparities that put Black and brown people at a disadvantage in the Justice Department's method for deciding who can take the early-release track. The department said its algorithmic tool for assessing the risk a person in prison would commit new crimes produced uneven results. The algorithm, known as Pattern, overpredicted the risk that many Black, Hispanic and Asian people would recidivate or violate rules after leaving prison. At the same time, it underpredicted the risk for some inmates of color when it came to possible return to violent crime.
Congress passed the First Step Act in 2018 with huge bipartisan majorities. It's designed to prepare people in prison for life afterwards, by offering credits toward early release for working or taking life skills and other classes behind bars. Only inmates who pose a low or minimal risk of returning to crime can qualify for the programs, with that risk level determined by the Pattern algorithm. The implementation has been rocky. The Justice Department finished the first version of Pattern in a rush because of a tight deadline from Congress. It had to make tweaks after finding Pattern suffered from math and human errors. About 14,000 men and women in federal prison wound up in the wrong risk categories. There were big disparities for people of color.