Q J Econ. 2018 Feb 1;133(1):237-293. doi: 10.1093/qje/qjx032. Epub 2017 Aug 26.


Can machine learning improve human decision making? Bail decisions provide a good test case. Millions of times each year, judges make jail-or-release decisions that hinge on a prediction of what a defendant would do if released. The concreteness of the prediction task combined with the volume of data available makes this a promising machine-learning application. Yet comparing the algorithm to judges proves complicated. First, the available data are generated by prior judge decisions. We only observe crime outcomes for released defendants, not for those judges detained. This makes it hard to evaluate counterfactual decision rules based on algorithmic predictions. Second, judges may have a broader set of preferences than the variable the algorithm predicts; for instance, judges may care specifically about violent crimes or about racial inequities. We deal with these problems using different econometric strategies, such as quasi-random assignment of cases to judges. Even accounting for these concerns, our results suggest potentially large welfare gains: one policy simulation shows crime reductions up to 24.7% with no change in jailing rates, or jailing rate reductions up to 41.9% with no increase in crime rates. Moreover, all categories of crime, including violent crimes, show reductions; and these gains can be achieved while simultaneously reducing racial disparities. These results suggest that while machine learning can be valuable, realizing this value requires integrating these tools into an economic framework: being clear about the link between predictions and decisions; specifying the scope of payoff functions; and constructing unbiased decision counterfactuals. JEL Codes: C10 (Econometric and statistical methods and methodology), C55 (Large datasets: Modeling and analysis), K40 (Legal procedure, the legal system, and illegal behavior).