May 25, 2023

Reducing Bias in Correctional Software: The Role of User-Centric Design in Creating Equitable Solutions for Black Prisoners

5-min read

Discrimination against Black prisoners is a global problem that has long plagued the criminal justice system. Studies have shown that Black prisoners are often subjected to harsher treatment, longer sentences, and less favourable conditions than their non-Black counterparts. This systemic inequality is particularly pronounced in the United States, where Black Americans make up only 13% of the population but account for 38% of the prison population.

However, this issue is not limited to the United States. In the United Kingdom, Black prisoners are more likely than other racial/ethnic groups to have force used against them. They also tend to spend more time in custody and serve a larger proportion of their original sentence. This discrimination is not limited to the legal system but extends to the software used in correctional facilities. Biased algorithms and software can further perpetuate systemic inequality and discrimination, leading to adverse outcomes for Black prisoners. For example, software that predicts recidivism rates may disproportionately classify Black prisoners as high-risk, leading to longer sentences and less favourable treatment. To combat this systemic injustice, user-centric software designs are essential in reducing unconscious bias.

Animated - monitor screen and keyboard with application icons circled around the top.

User-centric design is an approach to software development that prioritises the needs and experiences of the end user. Rather than simply building software based on assumptions about what users need or want, user-centric design involves actively engaging with users to understand their needs and incorporating feedback throughout the development process. This approach helps ensure that software is designed to meet the needs of the people who will be using it rather than the preferences or biases of the developers.

Benefits of User-Centric Design for Addressing Bias

There is a growing recognition that user-centric design can be instrumental in reducing prison bias. User-centric design can help by ensuring that the software used in correctional facilities is designed with the needs and experiences of Black prisoners in mind. For example, many existing offender management systems rely on algorithms to decide parole eligibility or prison assignments. However, these algorithms are often trained on data that reflects existing biases in the criminal justice system, such as the over-policing of Black communities and racial disparities in sentencing.

User Research and Testing

A user-centric design approach would involve actively engaging with Black prisoners within the criminal justice system to understand their needs and experiences. This might include conducting user research, such as interviews or focus groups, to gather feedback on how existing prisoner management systems are working and where there are opportunities for improvement. Conducting comprehensive research on the needs and experiences can help uncover any unconscious biases that may be present in a design approach. User testing can also help identify any biases that may have been overlooked. This feedback could then inform the design of new software that better meets the needs of Black prisoners.

Transparency and Accountability in Software Development

User-centric design can reduce software development bias by promoting transparency and accountability. By involving users in the design process and gathering their feedback, designers can ensure that the software meets their needs and is not influenced by the designer’s biases. Additionally, user-centric design can help promote transparency by being clear about how algorithms are designed and what data they are trained on. This level of transparency can help prevent unintended bias from being introduced into the software. By fostering accountability, user-centric design can help ensure that the software functions as intended and that any issues are addressed promptly and effectively. By prioritising transparency and accountability, designers can help create more equitable and trustworthy software that better serves all users.

Inclusive Language and Imagery

The language and imagery used in user-centric designs are critical in shaping the user experience. Designers must be mindful of the words and images they use to represent individuals and the criminal justice system. Discriminatory language or imagery can perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce negative attitudes towards Black prisoners. It’s essential to avoid using language or imagery that could be interpreted as stigmatising or discriminatory. Instead, designers could use language and imagery that are neutral, respectful, and inclusive. By being conscious of the language and imagery used in user-centric designs, designers can help create a more welcoming and supportive user experience for all users, regardless of their background or experiences.

In conclusion, the criminal justice system suffers from long-standing issues of bias and inequality, leading to the disproportionate treatment of prisoners. It’s important to note that user-centric design alone is not enough to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system. Many systemic issues must be addressed to create a more just and equitable system, such as addressing over-policing in Black communities and reforming sentencing laws. Examining every aspect of the system, including the software used in correctional facilities, is crucial to address this problem. The user-centric design prioritises users’ needs and experiences and can help reduce unconscious bias in software development. By taking a user-centric approach, designers can ensure that their software serves all users equally, regardless of race or ethnicity. Ultimately, this can lead to a fairer and more just criminal justice system.

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SEE PREVIOUS BLOG: Navigating Neurodivergence in Prison with the Aid of Technology