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The Courts

Data Entry Errors Resulted In Improper Sentences 138

Posted by kdawson
from the month-here-a-month-there dept.
shrik writes "Slate has a look at the efforts of Emily Owens, in 2005 a Ph.D student in economics at the University of Maryland, who 'came across thousands of inconsistencies and errors in the sentencing recommendations provided to judges' by the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy. Quoting: 'The sentencing guidelines for judges were based on a work-sheet [PDF] that "graded the severity of a convict's crime and his risk to society", ostensibly to make the rulings meted out more objective in nature. But on carefully studying her data, Owens noticed something wasn't adding up — the system seemed to be producing 1 error in every ten trials. She also realized that this "recommendation system" actually mattered: crimes and criminals analyzed to be quite similar were resulting in systematically different punishments correlated with the work-sheet.' The source of these discrepancies was ultimately found to be a simple, but very significant, PEBKAC: 'More than 90 percent of errors resulted from the person completing the work sheet [usually the DA, but signed off by the defense attorney] entering the figure from a cell next to the correct one. ... The remaining errors came mostly from incorrect choice of criminal statute in calculating the offense score and from a handful of math errors (in operations that were literally as simple as adding two plus two).' Timo Elliott's BI Questions Blog lists the morals of the story."
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Data Entry Errors Resulted In Improper Sentences

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Isn't the reason we have judges because no algorithm is perfect?

    • by Deag (250823) on Friday October 23, 2009 @10:30AM (#29845889)

      I thought this would be one reason you are paying a defense lawyer, to check this type of stuff.

      • by conureman (748753) on Friday October 23, 2009 @10:36AM (#29845955)

        That one in ten cases is incorrectly sentenced by this system says to me that some of the attorneys are filling these forms out; When the clerks take care of it, they usually get it right.

        • by ElectricTurtle (1171201) on Friday October 23, 2009 @11:13AM (#29846329)
          How many lawyers are modding today? Whoever is modding this down is in denial. I've worked for a law school, a law firm, and independent lawyer, and a state bar association, and I can vouch that the parent is absolutely correct. Lawyers are good at arguments, not book keeping.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by DaveGod (703167)

            I work as an accountant with several lawyers as clients, and I can also vouch that lawyers are no good at bookkeeping but are good at arguing.

            Incidentally, someone made a joke about Excel but actually computerised systems are quite handy for having built-in controls such as exception reports (sanity checks) and so on. Most importantly, the computer always bothers to actually perform the checks.

            p.s. What is ethnicity, race and indigence (poverty) doing on "Maryland's Sentencing Guides Worksheet"?

            • by shentino (1139071)

              Unless these recommendations are binding, it's a big fat case of "tough luck" because the judge was the one issuing the sentence.

              If they are optional the only choice is to bring it to the attention of the sentencing judge and hope they see fit to change their mind.

              Isn't judicial discretion wonderful?

              Not to mention that the power to put some "jerk" in jail is quite intoxicating. And if you can get that power and have it disguised as a clerical error...*evil laugh*.

        • by camperslo (704715)

          That one in ten cases is incorrectly sentenced by this system says to me that some of the attorneys are filling these forms out; When the clerks take care of it, they usually get it right.

          It can be the hired help too. Attorneys are often too good to do any of the actual work themselves.

          I encountered a friend I hadn't seen in a long time who sadly had become a meth addict. But he was well spoken and good looking and managed to get a job in a law office. But he complained about the work, how he'd forget wh

          • by conureman (748753)

            It COULD be the help, but if it is,I don't think the failure rate would be that high. I've been around Law Firms just a bit, and was struck by the amazing competence of the "help" vs: the pathetic fail that is: most people in most fields. Also, by the amazing nincompoopery of MOST of the Bar members I've met. I've only dealt with three reasonably competent lawyers in my life, and people treated them like Clarence Darrow for being merely competent. YMMV.

      • by mark_hill97 (897586) <masterofshadows@ ... .com minus punct> on Friday October 23, 2009 @10:48AM (#29846077)
        A good lawyer is expensive, some criminals can't afford good ones. Instead they end up with overworked public defenders who might have read the case file before going into the court.
        • by nietsch (112711) on Friday October 23, 2009 @12:20PM (#29847123) Homepage Journal

          And that is exactly what is wrong with your system. If you can afford a better lawyer that gets you a lower or no sentence, that means you have class justice. Maybe not class as in the classical sense with aristocracy etc, but class as in how much money you can get together (by yourself or your direct environment). Home of the free eh? It seems only if you (or your parents) can afford it. (nearly) 1% of the population behind bars is an awful lot and compares very bad with the rest of the world.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by ultranova (717540)

            Maybe not class as in the classical sense with aristocracy etc, but class as in how much money you can get together (by yourself or your direct environment).

            Actually, since old aristocracy was made of those rich enough to be able to afford their own private army, or at the very least a horse and armor at the very bottom, I'd say it's class justice in every sense of the word.

            (nearly) 1% of the population behind bars is an awful lot and compares very bad with the rest of the world.

            Yes, but making both the r

          • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 23, 2009 @01:21PM (#29848049)

            Public defenders have a bad reputation in the US, but the reality is often different. I saw a tragic case a few years ago where the accused was represented by a public defender. The DA offered a plea deal: 6 months in prison. The guy's family freaked out and hired the best attorney money could buy. Ultimate result? Two years in prison.

            Public defenders are in court all the time. Even though they may not spend the most time on a particular case, they have a lot more experience than private attorneys because they handle a lot more cases. From what I have seen, you can almost always get a better deal if your are represented by a public defender. In the US, well over 90% of cases never go to trial, so the ability to get a good plea deal cannot be understated.

            If I were accused, I would be very comfortable being represented by a public defender.

            • by shentino (1139071)

              What gripes me is that you even have to make a deal in the first place.

              Negotiation belongs in the boardroom.

              Keep it out of the criminal justice system please.

          • And that is exactly what is wrong with your system. If you can afford a better lawyer that gets you a lower or no sentence, that means you have class justice.

            You would think so but like so many things in life it's not as simple as a sound bite makes it. One of my cousins is a public defender. She's very good at her job, dedicated and loves what she does. However she is the first to tell you that virtually all of her clients ARE actually guilty. We're not talking probably guilty here, we're talking stone-cold-caught-in-the-act-and-probably-confessed guilty or something close to it. Speak to any public defender and they'll tell you basically the same thing.

      • by sjames (1099)

        I wonder how many times the defense lawyer was a public defender with too many cases to even remember all of the client's names?

      • If I hadn't read the article, I would have said the fix is to have defense counsel go over the form - after all, that's what they're there for, to represent their client's interests. Then I find out that they did exactly that: the completed form was signed by both the prosecutor and the defense attorney before the judge sees it.

        I'm with the author of the article: Any competent lawyer should never trust the number coming from the other side, for exactly this reason. To have your client be over-punished b
    • by Fished (574624)
      In fairness to the judges, they did reduce each month of recommended additional sentence to just four days. It would be interesting to see whether that was made up of a lot of judges who struck a middle ground between the recommendation and what their "judicial intuition" told them, or 1/10 judges who just didn't care and took whatever the recommendations said.
    • Error in data entry != error in algorithm.
      In fact, TFS does not even mention any algorithm.

      But I can understand your desire to get first post. And you can't bother to read TFS if you want to get first post, can you?
  • Whoops (Score:5, Funny)

    by Useful Wheat (1488675) on Friday October 23, 2009 @10:27AM (#29845845)

    I always knew using microsoft excel would damn your soul to hell, but I didn't know it could also send you to jail as well.

  • Garbage in... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Hognoxious (631665) on Friday October 23, 2009 @10:29AM (#29845873) Homepage Journal
    ... garbage out.
  • PEBKAC (Score:3, Informative)

    by soundhack (179543) on Friday October 23, 2009 @10:31AM (#29845907)

    Wow, I have to turn in my geek card, I didn't know what this meant until I googled it.

    Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair

    • obligatory (Score:5, Funny)

      by Anonymusing (1450747) on Friday October 23, 2009 @10:51AM (#29846105)
      You've experienced an ID 10-T error.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I didn't know what it meant to turn in one's geek card, but I googled it. I also didn't know which bathroom to use at Outback Steakhouse. I also didn't know to spit out my gum before falling asleep. I didn't know the twist from The Crying Game. At one point I didn't even know my own name. At no point did I announce these personal revelations to the world - we didn't have twitter yet.

      It's called "learning". Welcome to the club.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        That's ok, the chick from The Crying Game didn't know which bathroom to go to either.

    • Re:PEBKAC (Score:4, Insightful)

      by wastedlife (1319259) on Friday October 23, 2009 @11:15AM (#29846357) Homepage Journal

      I vote you can keep your geek card, because you googled it. If you had just posted "PEBKAC, what the fuck does that mean?! Damn kids and their txt speak", we would kindly ask you to hand in your geek card and resume lawn-guarding duties.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I've always seen this before referred to as a PICNIC error...

      Problem in chair not in computer...

      PICNIC trips of the tongue a bit more easily than PEBKAC...

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        PICNIC trips of the tongue a bit more easily than PEBKAC...

        That's kind of the point. Since it is a complicated-sounding acronym, you can say it to the person's face: "Uh, huh. Uh, huh. Yeah, I've seen this before. Sounds like a PEBKAC error. Here's what you need to do..."
        Much better than: "Uh, huh. Uh, huh. Yeah, I've seen this before. Sounds like a PICNIC error"
        "Haha, that's funny, what's it stand for?"
        "Uh, problem in chair, not in computer"
        "Asshole"

    • JFGI solves many issues related to the understanding of unknown acronyms. And has the advantage of being potentially humorous the first time one experiences it. I'm glad to hear it solved your problem.
  • Wait... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Overkill Nbuta (1035654) on Friday October 23, 2009 @10:32AM (#29845909)

    I thought grammar errors resulted in improper sentences.

  • Legal Malpractice (Score:5, Informative)

    by Dr. Grabow (949057) on Friday October 23, 2009 @10:34AM (#29845929)
    IAAL and it is legal malpractice to not double-check the prosecution's sentencing algorithm and recommendations to the judge ...
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by kj_kabaje (1241696)
      Holy sh!t. So 1 of every 10 cases in Maryland should result in malpractice suit? That's a stunningly low quality of lawyers in this PhD's sample.
    • Re:Legal Malpractice (Score:5, Interesting)

      by cvd6262 (180823) on Friday October 23, 2009 @11:09AM (#29846301)

      IAAL and it is legal malpractice to not double-check the prosecution's sentencing algorithm and recommendations to the judge ...

      That's great! So, where do I bring this up? What happens to the lawyers who make these mistakes?

      I'm not being snarky; I sincerely wish to know.

      When I moved to the East Coast I found it odd that I needed a lawyer to buy a house. I had bought and sold out West on a handshake and a contract. I was told that out here, where property has been bought and sold for centuries, the lawyers would check deeds, get the property surveyed, etc. OK, I got that.

      But what happens if in ten years, somebody's great grandson comes by with a deed on the northern half of my land? Do I get my lawyer fees back?

      Similarly, a family member of mine just settled on her divorce. When it came time to sign the papers, her ex acted shocked at the agreement. His laywer said, "You can't blame him. He just didn't understand the terms." So, then, can we blame the laywer who was supposed to explain it to him?

      Coming back to the topic here: So the defense attorney screwed up. 1) What are the paths of recourse for those who suffered from the mistake? 2) What are the consequences to the lawyer who screwed up?

      Because, in my dealing with lawyers, they almost never get called out on their mistakes.

      • Re:Legal Malpractice (Score:5, Interesting)

        by snspdaarf (1314399) on Friday October 23, 2009 @11:26AM (#29846491)
        You can sue a lawyer for malpractice. Of course, you need another lawyer....

        You can also file a bar complaint. The state bar association will investigate. And, in spite of, or perhaps because of, all the lawyer jokes, they take it seriously.

        In the case of your land, that is what title insurance is for. However, what is usually in the closing costs for title insurance is to protect the bank, should there be a title error, so they don't lose the loan money. You have to buy your own title insurance to protect your investment. You can also get an abstract of title and check it out yourself, but the abstract costs money.

        My experience with lawyers is that they will be more than happy to explain anything you want in more detail, but if you just sit there and nod, they presume you understand what is going on. Health care, legal care, or custom software, if you don't stay engaged, you won't get the outcome you want.
        • by cvd6262 (180823)

          In the case of your land, that is what title insurance is for.

          So the company that insures my title will get the money back from the lawyer whom I paid to cleared the title?

          Or does the lawyer keep the money regardless of the outcome?

        • by Chris Mattern (191822) on Friday October 23, 2009 @12:13PM (#29847019)

          My experience with lawyers is that they will be more than happy to explain anything you want in more detail

          They get to charge $300+ an hour to sit there and explain things to you. Damn straight they're "more than happy" to do it!

      • That's great! So, where do I bring this up? What happens to the lawyers who make these mistakes?

        They get sued for malpractice. Or someone files a complaint with the State Bar. Or both.

        • Or someone files a complaint with the State Bar.

          I swear to The Flying Spaghetti Monster that I read that as

          Or someone files a complaint with the Battlestar.

          • I suspect if that was what really happened, the error rate would quickly become significantly less than 1:10
      • Re:Legal Malpractice (Score:5, Informative)

        by MBGMorden (803437) on Friday October 23, 2009 @11:43AM (#29846669)

        But what happens if in ten years, somebody's great grandson comes by with a deed on the northern half of my land? Do I get my lawyer fees back?

        Basically, strange things happen. I work in a county government where we handle property tax billing, and essentially the situation you describe results in a disputed property record being created.

        Generally we have parcel ID numbers to distinguish unique tracks of land. These are 10 digit numbers. When a piece of land becomes disputed though a letter will be added behind - so 1001003832A and 1001003832B for example. These are physically the same pieces of land that will be listed under the original ownership and the disputed ownership. Legally, until something changes, BOTH parties own the land. Both are charged property taxes, and if either fails to pay then they forfeit their stake in the land to the county (which interestingly enough, can then be auctioned at the tax sale as a stake in the land even though there is already another owner).

        What USUALLY happens is that one or the other owner will either cave and sell their share to the other owner, resulting in a single ownership again, or one of them will just eventually stop paying the taxes and the current owner will purchase back that stake in the land at auction (since the fact that the propery is disputed will hamper the auction value a lot anyways).

        • Both are charged property taxes

          Isn't that double dipping? How is that even legal?

          I can understand it, IF the parties are charged an amount equal to half (a third or however many parties there are) of the original property tax, but otherwise there will be absolutely no interest in settling this from the perspective of the government.

          While I'm sure what you're saying is only giving a brief outline of what happens, it sounds as if you could use this method to ruin people you don't like.

          Just cook up four or fiv

          • by Ritz_Just_Ritz (883997) on Friday October 23, 2009 @12:20PM (#29847121)

            "Isn't that double dipping? How is that even legal?"

            Palpatine: I'll MAKE it legal.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by jhfry (829244)

            It is indeed double dipping... and it's brilliant.

            It's like when you and a sibling or friend fought over a toy and your parents ripped it in half and gave you each a piece. No one wins unless one side relents. That's justice!

          • by MBGMorden (803437)

            Isn't that double dipping? How is that even legal?

            It's how the law is written, hence it's legal (and remember that county governments have a legal system and pass laws themselves to - just like the Federal to State relationship, anything that the State doesn't forbid, county council can make laws on themselves). Honestly, I can say that given the tiny amount of extra revenue we get from disputed properties (out of 90,000+ properties in our system was have about 15 that are disputed) it causes far more headaches to deal with that the little bit of extra re

        • by mcgrew (92797) *

          I work in a county government where we handle property tax billing... Generally we have parcel ID numbers to distinguish unique tracks of land

          You mean the railroad is disputing ownership of a particulat tract of land? Sorry, but your misspelling of that single word makes one think that maybe you don't handle anything remotely related to property. They're tracts of land, not tracks of land.

          • by MBGMorden (803437)

            I'm well aware of the distinction in terms (though it's more common to refer to them as parcels here than tracts). I'm sure there are other misspellings in my post too.

            Much like you're little slip with:

            You mean the railroad is disputing ownership of a particulat tract of land?

            If you presume every time someone misspells a word that they're lying then you're in for one heck of a doubting spell.

            • by mcgrew (92797) *

              If you presume every time someone misspells a word that they're lying then you're in for one heck of a doubting spell.

              If I see someone spell "loose" when they mean "lose" I generally think they're just making a typo. Or with "noone" (easy enough to miss the space bar). But when you use the wrong word entirely it makes me think you really don't know what you're talking about. How, exactly, did you confuse "tracts" with "Tracks"? I would think someone working in a tax office would see the word "tracts" writte

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        Because, in my dealing with lawyers, they almost never get called out on their mistakes.

        There are articles in the newspaper every month about lawyers being sanctioned, which actually illustrates your point. If it were common, it woudn't be news.

    • by Kaenneth (82978)

      IAAL and it is legal malpractice to not double-check the prosecution's sentencing algorithm and recommendations to the judge ...

      That's assuming the error is not in their clients favor...

  • The problem with a PEBKAC diagnosis is that even when you replace the offending filter, you're still taking input from a chair...

    • by MadKeithV (102058)
      That'll start working when chairs fly.
      Hold on, I think I've figured out what Balmer's working on!
    • The problem with a PEBKAC diagnosis is that even when you replace the offending filter, you're still taking input from a chair...

      Ah, but the chair is less likely to give you faulty data, isn't it?

  • by cryfreedomlove (929828) on Friday October 23, 2009 @10:36AM (#29845965)
    This is another example of why impartial and fair justice is really only available to the rich. A rich defendant could afford to pay his high powered defense attorney team to scrutinize this level of detail. This is not happening for poor defendants who are forced to settle for noble, but overworked, public defenders.
    • by Itninja (937614) on Friday October 23, 2009 @10:58AM (#29846171) Homepage
      Does that also mean that, when a rich person does get convicted and go to jail, they must have really done it? Whereas a poor person who goes to jail is likely just a victim of the system?
      • Re: (Score:1, Offtopic)

        by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510)

        Does that also mean that, when a rich person does get convicted and go to jail, they must have really done it? Whereas a poor person who goes to jail is likely just a victim of the system?

        Probably. But having really "done it" according to the law doesn't mean the law itself is good law.
        Don't confuse being technically correct with being fair or right.

        • by conureman (748753)

          Don't go confusing findings with facts, I've personally gone to jail for "crimes" that, had they factually occurred, I would not have been guilty of, anyway. Not a damn thing to be done either.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Hatta (162192)

        Do you have any counter examples of rich and powerful people wrongly convicted?

        • by Itninja (937614)
          Of course not. I mean, their social standing makes their wrongful conviction a fundamental impossibility. It just makes sense.
          Kidding aside, the wrongful conviction of the rich and powerful usually come in the form of purges or revolutions. As opposed to us plebes that get stuck with the pedestrian court system, the powerful get lined up and shot, or beheaded, or just 'disappeared'.
      • by FlightTest (90079) on Friday October 23, 2009 @12:10PM (#29846995) Homepage

        No, it means a rich person is much more likely to get the correct sentence, for better or for worse. I read most of TFA so I may have missed it, but it didn't seem to say whether longer or shorter sentences were more likely. It did say that race wasn't a factor in the error, and implied that the errors were non-intentional.

      • by sjames (1099)

        It does suggest that a convicted rich person is much more likely to have actually done it than a poor person convicted on the same strength of evidence. It does not rise to the level of 100% certainty.

      • by ultranova (717540)

        Does that also mean that, when a rich person does get convicted and go to jail, they must have really done it?

        No, it just means that they've managed to piss of someone even more powerfull.

      • by LanMan04 (790429)

        Does that also mean that, when a rich person does get convicted and go to jail, they must have really done it? Whereas a poor person who goes to jail is likely just a victim of the system?

        Yes.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Sinical (14215)

        I would agree that this is pretty close to the truth: innocent rich people can provide a much better defense than innocent poor people who typically cut deals. Due to the volume pressures (mostly due to incredibly minor drug offenses clogging up the courts), judges typically apply a "trial tax" where if you don't plead out, you get hit with a stiffer sentence (for taking up more of his time and lowering his "clearance rate"). Poor people who have to rely on overworked public defenders (who are also part o

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by benwiggy (1262536)

      Are you suggesting that reading the correct cell from a spreadsheet table is a level "detailed scrutiny", which public defenders are incapable of?

      As a lawyer has posted above, it is malpractice not to check this.

      Whilst I agree that justice is what you pay for it, this isn't a great example.

      • by sjames (1099)

        Given a sufficiently large caseload, even the best and brightest will perform poorly. This applies to many professions including law.

      • Let's assume that the error rate for any given lawyer is 1:100. Now let's assume that a big-league legal firm working on a high-profile case for a rich/powerful/famous/etc. person dedicates a staff of 10 lawyers to the case. If any given lawyer will make an error for every 100 details, then the odds of all ten lawyers making the same mistake are pretty slim. Therefore, the odds of having an error in the sentencing for such a defendant are also pretty slim, right?

        Now, look at the opposite case. Rather
    • by cvd6262 (180823)

      This is another example of why impartial and fair justice is really only available to the rich.

      You need to add the stipulation "... in our FUBAR system."

      There are ways to reform it, but short of a revolution, they're not happening.

    • With [nwsource.com] noble [allbusiness.com] souls [northcountrygazette.org] like [apublicdefender.com] these [nwsource.com], who needs corruption?
      • by sjames (1099)

        I'm guessing the many people incompetently defended (particularly in the first link) were NOT granted a new trial even though they were set up to lose before they even got to court.

  • FTA: "The problem? And all too-common problem with anything to do with information and analysis: human error."

  • Rough math (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 23, 2009 @11:04AM (#29846247)

    2 + 2 = life sentence

    (for very large values of 2)

  • This isn't hard core number crunching or anything, but why does it take an econ PhD to figure out something's wrong with the criminal justice system?
  • by AP31R0N (723649) on Friday October 23, 2009 @11:15AM (#29846359)

    Spell and grammar check aren't enough to ensure proper sentences.

  • Yeah right...!

    More like "getting paid for nudging sentences in the 'right direction'" 'errors'.

  • Crime never adds up.

  • Is it me ? I expected that the moral of the story is that you can't rely on an algorithm to choose a sentence in a criminal case.

    Problem is not data wrongly entered or math errors. Problem is willing to apply those kind of formula. This is just absurd.

  • When I read the headline "Data Entry Errors Resulted In Improper Sentences" the first thing that sprang to mind was to append "and sometimes piss poor paragraphs as well."

    What I find interesting about TFA is the section on parole boards correcting the mistakes if the error shortened a sentence "So parole boards proved very effective in reversing errors that would have led to shortened prison time; much less so for undeserved extra time." So, if your sentence was too long they really did nothing above and b
    • by Reziac (43301) *

      "So, if your sentence was too long they really did nothing above and beyond what they did for most all sentences, but if it was too short they caught it and corrected it to some degree."

      Wouldn't that be a run-on sentence??

      And it explains hanging offenses, too -- the penalty is due to dangling participles.

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