Prison Terms and Essay Grading: The Technology Gap Widens

Categories: Tech

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Anthony Freda
On the front page of today's New York Times, there is a story about a software program that can instantly grade essays. The system was designed by EdX, a non-profit group founded by Harvard and MIT, and it is gaining momentum.

Last year, Hewlett-Packard's grant-making arm held two contests, each with a $100,000 prize, "aimed at improving software that grades essays and short answers." This week, Stanford joined forces with the enterprise to help develop an educational system that uses this "automated assessment technology."

Surely, backers of this innovation would concede that young people tend to be extremely skilled at gaming computer systems, mastering the craft from the days of Super Mario and Madden. But even then, it's remarkable to think that technology has advanced so far that we're actually breaking down the potential flaws of a machine at least halfway capable of assessing the intellectual merit of a string of paragraphs.

Round of applause for human ingenuity! Welcome to the future!

But hold up. The Santa Claus of technological innovation does not leave the same gifts in every child's house. Under one tree, there is an essay-grading software with state-of-the-art artificial intelligence. Under another, there is a lump of coal.

On NPR this morning, there was a story about jails and prisons across the country losing track of inmates-- some get released too early and some get held too long. Why was a New Mexico man charged with a DUI accidentally held in solitary confinement for two years without seeing a judge or a lawyer? A clerical error. Because, as Michela Bowman, senior program associate at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, explained, "For the most part, sentence calculations are being done by hand."

See Also: Barred from Freedom: How Pretrial Detention Ruins Lives

It's technological stratification. Educational institutions, with backing from the tech world, are on the verge of having software complex enough to grade essays and "provide general feedback, like telling a student whether an answer was on topic or not." As the Times described:

The EdX assessment tool requires human teachers, or graders, to first grade 100 essays or essay questions. The system then uses a variety of machine-learning techniques to train itself to be able to grade any number of essays or answers automatically and almost instantaneously.

Meanwhile, one of our most deeply rooted public institutions-- an incarceration system that oversees tens of millions of people-- relies on little more than a chain of human competency: "on court clerks to record judges' orders correctly, prison and jail administrators to properly read those instructions, and facility staff to accurately add and subtract good-time credits."

Mistakes, officials suggested to NPR, are inevitable.

"I'd be very surprised if there is a county jail anywhere in America that hasn't released a pretrial prisoner early or held one longer," says Art Wallenstein, who heads the Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation in Maryland. He's been running jails for more than 30 years.

Wallenstein says it seems like a simple task: Release inmates on their release dates. But consider his stats: He has 2,000 inmates at any given time, and 10,000 inmates go in and out of his system every year. Getting the dates right can be tricky.

"You could have simply a wrong number placed on a release document," Wallenstein says. "You could have an X drawn through a case by mistake. You could have a detainer that just came in as someone was being released. I've been doing this for a terribly long time, and it hasn't got any easier."

So you get instances like Evan Ebel, the white supremacist who in January was mistakenly released from a Colorado prison four years too early due to a "clerical error." A couple of weeks ago, Ebel shot and killed Tom Clements, the head of the Colorado Department of Corrections.

And then you have situations like what happened to Stephen Slevin, the New Mexico man locked up in solitary confinement for two years. "Jail administrators," NRP reported, "seem to have forgotten about him. At one point he pulled out his own tooth."

Taxpayers must cover for this: Slevin got $15 million from the county.

But the government budget-cutting will continue, and the public institutions will lag further behind the technological possibilities of the time. Welcome to the future.




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