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Artificial intelligence is not smart enough to set bail

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Bail bonds businesses line the block across the street from the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. (Joel Angel Juárez/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

As a Superior Court judge, I worked throughout my 10-year career to ensure protection of the public and victims by conducting comprehensive reviews and evaluations of all facts known at the time bail is ordered or an accused defendant is released without bail.

This judicial assessment included past criminal history, potential danger to victims, a victim’s family and witnesses, flight risk and seriousness of the charge or charges against the defendant.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s recent op-ed in the San Francisco Examiner advocates eliminating California’s bail system and replacing it with an unproven robotic and impersonal algorithm-based computer pretrial system. Allowing a computer to make legal decisions removes a judge’s authority to obtain in court the facts, determine the risk inherent in enabling an accused to walk our streets, set bail and apply superior human understanding to evaluate the facts.

What Adachi omits is that California wants to adopt the same pretrial risk-based assessment programs as New Jersey and New Mexico, where the system has caused such havoc in the criminal justice system that members of both political parties now want to repeal the damage their poor choices are causing.

While modern artificial intelligence and expert-system technologies are advanced beyond their reliability decades or even years ago, they still contain significant error and uncertainty rates that, when applied to the real world, cause mistakes, errors and damage to persons.

There remains significant uncertainty about what a machine-language program has learned and how it will act in dealing with actual human defendants in judicial cases based on simple or complex crimes.

The People vs. Humphrey case mentioned by Adachi isn’t simply the defendant stealing a bottle of cologne and incurring a $350,000 bail. That portrayal is wildly deceptive; Humphrey’s latest victim was a 79-year-old, frail, elderly man who requires a walker to move.

En route to his apartment, the victim was pursued by Humphrey, who followed him into the apartment and entered his bedroom, ordered the victim onto the bed and threatened to suffocate him by placing a pillowcase over the victim’s head.

The threat prompted the victim to open his wallet and show Humphrey he only had two dollars. The victim told Humphrey he had some additional money on the dresser that he was saving for his grandchildren’s Christmas presents, which amounted to about $5.

Humphrey then proceeded to demand the victim’s cellphone, but after the victim told him it was password protected, he threw it on the floor.

Humphrey took the money from both the wallet and dresser and the victim’s cologne. As he was leaving, Humphrey kicked the victim’s walker to another room, leaving the victim disabled and stranded in his apartment.

This was not an aberration. Humphrey has four prior felony convictions: a robbery on Oct. 3, 1980, second and third strike for a robbery, attempted robbery committed on Jan. 21, 1986, and a robbery committed on July 31, 1992.

Humphrey has relapsed after completing two drug treatment programs since release from the San Francisco jail in 2008.

It is perfectly logical that the trial court judge set a bail of $350,000 based on severity of the current crime, the defendant’s prior criminal history and potential danger to the community, not just on the amount of the stolen property.

Also missing from Adachi’s op-ed was that Humphrey, through his lawyer, waived his constitutional right to a speedy trial within 30 days of his first court appearance.

A factually honest discussion about bail should be done with all the facts, not a few selected ones manufactured to create the illusion of bias. Adachi and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra should be honest with the people of California and inform them via objective information, not omit embarrassing facts.

Quentin L. Kopp is a former 15-year member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, served 12 years as state Senator for San Mateo County and San Francisco. He was appointed a San Mateo County Superior Court judge in 1999 and retired in 2009.

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