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State v. Loomis

Supreme Court of Wisconsin

July 13, 2016

State of Wisconsin, Plaintiff-Respondent,
Eric L. Loomis, Defendant-Appellant.

          ORAL ARGUMENT: April 5, 2016



         APPEAL from an order of the circuit court.

          For the defendant-appellant, there were briefs by Michael D. Rosenberg and Community Justice, Inc., Madison, and oral argument by Michael D. Rosenberg.

          For the plaintiff-respondent, the cause was argued by Christine A. Remington, assistant attorney general, with whom on the brief was Brad D. Schimel, attorney general.


         ¶1 In 2007, the Conference of Chief Justices adopted a resolution entitled "In Support of Sentencing Practices that Promote Public Safety and Reduce Recidivism."[1] It emphasized that the judiciary "has a vital role to play in ensuring that criminal justice systems work effectively and efficiently to protect the public by reducing recidivism and holding offenders accountable."[2] The conference committed to "support state efforts to adopt sentencing and corrections policies and programs based on the best research evidence of practices shown to be effective in reducing recidivism."[3]

         ¶2 Likewise, the American Bar Association has urged states to adopt risk assessment tools in an effort to reduce recidivism and increase public safety.[4] It emphasized concerns relating to the incarceration of low-risk individuals, cautioning that the placement of low-risk offenders with medium and high-risk offenders may increase rather than decrease the risk of recidivism.[5] Such exposure can lead to negative influences from higher risk offenders and actually be detrimental to the individual's efforts at rehabilitation.[6]

         ¶3 Initially risk assessment tools were used only by probation and parole departments to help determine the best supervision and treatment strategies for offenders.[7] With nationwide focus on the need to reduce recidivism and the importance of evidence-based practices, the use of such tools has now expanded to sentencing.[8] Yet, the use of these tools at sentencing is more complex because the sentencing decision has multiple purposes, only some of which are related to recidivism reduction.[9]

         ¶4 When analyzing the use of evidence-based risk assessment tools at sentencing, it is important to consider that tools such as COMPAS continue to change and evolve.[10] The concerns we address today may very well be alleviated in the future. It is incumbent upon the criminal justice system to recognize that in the coming months and years, additional research data will become available. Different and better tools may be developed. As data changes, our use of evidence-based tools will have to change as well. The justice system must keep up with the research and continuously assess the use of these tools.

         ¶5 Use of a particular evidence-based risk assessment tool at sentencing is the heart of the issue we address today. This case is before the court on certification from the court of appeals.[11] Petitioner, Eric L. Loomis, appeals the circuit court's denial of his post-conviction motion requesting a resentencing hearing.

         ¶6 The court of appeals certified the specific question of whether the use of a COMPAS risk assessment at sentencing "violates a defendant's right to due process, either because the proprietary nature of COMPAS prevents defendants from challenging the COMPAS assessment's scientific validity, or because COMPAS assessments take gender into account."[12]

         ¶7 Loomis asserts that the circuit court's consideration of a COMPAS risk assessment at sentencing violates a defendant's right to due process. Additionally he contends that the circuit court erroneously exercised its discretion by assuming that the factual bases for the read-in charges were true.

         ¶8 Ultimately, we conclude that if used properly, observing the limitations and cautions set forth herein, a circuit court's consideration of a COMPAS risk assessment at sentencing does not violate a defendant's right to due process.

         ¶9 We determine that because the circuit court explained that its consideration of the COMPAS risk scores was supported by other independent factors, its use was not determinative in deciding whether Loomis could be supervised safely and effectively in the community. Therefore, the circuit court did not erroneously exercise its discretion. We further conclude that the circuit court's consideration of the read-in charges was not an erroneous exercise of discretion because it employed recognized legal standards.

         ¶10 Accordingly, we affirm the order of the circuit court denying Loomis's motion for post-conviction relief requesting a resentencing hearing.


         ¶11 The facts of this case are not in dispute. The State contends that Loomis was the driver in a drive-by shooting. It charged him with five counts, all as a repeater: (1) First-degree recklessly endangering safety (PTAC); (2) Attempting to flee or elude a traffic officer (PTAC); (3) Operating a motor vehicle without the owner's consent; (4) Possession of a firearm by a felon (PTAC); (5) Possession of a short-barreled shotgun or rifle (PTAC).[13]

         ¶12 Loomis denies involvement in the drive-by shooting. He waived his right to trial and entered a guilty plea to only two of the less severe charges, attempting to flee a traffic officer and operating a motor vehicle without the owner's consent. The plea agreement stated that the other counts would be dismissed but read in:

The other counts will be dismissed and read in for sentencing, although the defendant denies he had any role in the shooting, and only drove the car after the shooting occurred. The State believes he was the driver of the car when the shooting happened.
The State will leave any appropriate sentence to the Court's discretion, but will argue aggravating and mitigating factors.

         After accepting Loomis's plea, the circuit court ordered a presentence investigation. The Presentence Investigation Report ("PSI") included an attached COMPAS risk assessment.

         ¶13 COMPAS is a risk-need assessment tool designed by Northpointe, Inc. to provide decisional support for the Department of Corrections when making placement decisions, managing offenders, and planning treatment.[14] The COMPAS risk assessment is based upon information gathered from the defendant's criminal file and an interview with the defendant.

         ¶14 A COMPAS report consists of a risk assessment designed to predict recidivism and a separate needs assessment for identifying program needs in areas such as employment, housing and substance abuse.[15] The risk assessment portion of COMPAS generates risk scores displayed in the form of a bar chart, with three bars that represent pretrial recidivism risk, general recidivism risk, and violent recidivism risk.[16] Each bar indicates a defendant's level of risk on a scale of one to ten.[17]

         ¶15 As the PSI explains, risk scores are intended to predict the general likelihood that those with a similar history of offending are either less likely or more likely to commit another crime following release from custody. However, the COMPAS risk assessment does not predict the specific likelihood that an individual offender will reoffend. Instead, it provides a prediction based on a comparison of information about the individual to a similar data group.

         ¶16 Loomis's COMPAS risk scores indicated that he presented a high risk of recidivism on all three bar charts. His PSI included a description of how the COMPAS risk assessment should be used and cautioned against its misuse, instructing that it is to be used to identify offenders who could benefit from interventions and to target risk factors that should be addressed during supervision.

         ¶17 The PSI also cautions that a COMPAS risk assessment should not be used to determine the severity of a sentence or whether an offender is incarcerated:

For purposes of Evidence Based Sentencing, actuarial assessment tools are especially relevant to: 1. Identify offenders who should be targeted for interventions. 2. Identify dynamic risk factors to target with conditions of supervision. 3. It is very important to remember that risk scores are not intended to determine the severity of the sentence or whether an offender is incarcerated.

(Emphasis added.)

         ¶18 At sentencing, the State argued that the circuit court should use the COMPAS report when determining an appropriate sentence:

In addition, the COMPAS report that was completed in this case does show the high risk and the high needs of the defendant. There's a high risk of violence, high risk of recidivism, high pre-trial risk; and so all of these are factors in determining the appropriate sentence.

         ¶19 Ultimately, the circuit court referenced the COMPAS risk score along with other sentencing factors in ruling out probation:

You're identified, through the COMPAS assessment, as an individual who is at high risk to the community.
In terms of weighing the various factors, I'm ruling out probation because of the seriousness of the crime and because your history, your history on supervision, and the risk assessment tools that have been utilized, suggest that you're extremely high risk to re-offend.

         ¶20 In addition to the COMPAS assessment, the circuit court considered the read-in charges at sentencing. For sentencing purposes, it assumed that the factual bases for the read-in charges were true and that Loomis was at least involved in conduct underlying the read-in charges. The circuit court explained further that Loomis "needs to understand that if these shooting related charges are being read in that I'm going to view that as a serious, aggravating factor at sentencing." Defense counsel protested the circuit court's assumption that the read-in charges were true and explained that Loomis did not concede that he was involved in the drive-by shooting.

         ¶21 Although a review of the transcript of the plea hearing reveals miscommunications and uncertainty about the consequences of a dismissed but read-in offense, the circuit court ultimately quoted directly from a then-recent decision of this court explaining the nature of such a read-in offense. It explained to Loomis that a circuit court can consider the read-in offense at sentencing and that such consideration could increase a defendant's sentence:

The Court: Mr. Loomis, I just--there is a recent Supreme Court decision in State v. Frey that describes what a read-in offense is. And I just want to quote from that decision so that you fully understand it. . . .
"[T]he defendant exposes himself to the likelihood of a higher sentence within the sentencing range and the additional possibility of restitution for the offenses that are 'read in.'"
So you're limited in this agreement to a sentencing range within--up to the maximums for the charges that you're pleading guilty. You're agreeing, as the Supreme Court decision indicates, that the charges can be read in and considered, and that has the effect of increasing the likelihood, the likelihood of a higher sentence within the sentencing range. You understand that?
Loomis: Yes.

         ¶22 The plea questionnaire/waiver of rights form stated that the maximum penalty Loomis faced for both charges was seventeen years and six months imprisonment. The court sentenced him within the maximum on the two charges for which he entered a plea.[18]

         ¶23 Loomis filed a motion for post-conviction relief requesting a new sentencing hearing. He argued that the circuit court's consideration of the COMPAS risk assessment at sentencing violated his due process rights. Loomis further asserted that the circuit court erroneously exercised its discretion by improperly assuming that the factual bases for the read-in charges were true.

         ¶24 The circuit court held two hearings on the post-conviction motion. At the first hearing, the circuit court addressed Loomis's claim that it had erroneously exercised its discretion in how it considered the read-in charges. Considering the relevant case law and legal standards, the circuit court concluded that it had applied the proper standard and denied Loomis's motion on that issue.

         ¶25 During the first post-conviction motion hearing, the circuit court reviewed the plea hearing transcript and the sentencing transcript and explained that it did not believe Loomis's explanation:

I felt Mr. Loomis's explanation was inconsistent with the facts. The State's version was more consistent with the facts and gave greater weight to the State's version at sentencing.

         ¶26 At the second hearing, the circuit court addressed the due process issues. The defendant offered the testimony of an expert witness, Dr. David Thompson, regarding the use at sentencing of a COMPAS risk assessment. Dr. Thompson opined that a COMPAS risk assessment should not be used for decisions regarding incarceration because a COMPAS risk assessment was not designed for such use. According to Dr. Thompson, a circuit court's consideration at sentencing of the risk assessment portions of COMPAS runs a "tremendous risk of over estimating an individual's risk and . . . mistakenly sentencing them or basing their sentence on factors that may not apply . . . ."

         ¶27 Dr. Thompson further testified that sentencing courts have very little information about how a COMPAS assessment analyzes the risk:

The Court does not know how the COMPAS compares that individual's history with the population that it's comparing them with. The Court doesn't even know whether that population is a Wisconsin population, a New York population, a California population. . . . There's all kinds of information that the court doesn't have, and what we're doing is we're mis-informing the court when we put these graphs in front of them and let them use it for sentence.

         ¶28 In denying the post-conviction motion, the circuit court explained that it used the COMPAS risk assessment to corroborate its findings and that it would have imposed the same sentence regardless of whether it considered the COMPAS risk scores. Loomis appealed and the court of appeals certified the appeal to this court.


         ¶29 Whether the circuit court's consideration of a COMPAS risk assessment violated Loomis's constitutional right to due process presents a question of law, which this court reviews independently of the determinations of a circuit court or a court of appeals. See Jackson v. Buchler, 2010 WI 135, ¶39, 330 Wis.2d 279, 793 N.W.2d 826.

         ¶30 "This court reviews sentencing decisions under the erroneous exercise of discretion standard." State v. Frey, 2012 WI 99, ¶37, 343 Wis.2d 358, 817 N.W.2d 436. An erroneous exercise of discretion occurs when a circuit court imposes a sentence "without the underpinnings of an explained judicial reasoning process." McCleary v. State, 49 Wis.2d 263, 278, 182 N.W.2d 512 (1971); see also State v. Gallion, 2004 WI 42, ¶3, 270 Wis.2d 535, 678 N.W.2d 197.

         ¶31 Additionally, a sentencing court erroneously exercises its discretion when its sentencing decision is not based on the facts in the record or it misapplies the applicable law. State v. Travis, 2013 WI 38, ¶16, 347 Wis.2d 142, 832 N.W.2d 491. It misapplies the law when it relies on clearly irrelevant or improper factors. McCleary, 49 Wis.2d at 278. The defendant bears the burden of proving such reliance by clear and convincing evidence. State v. Harris, 2010 WI 79, ¶3, 326 Wis.2d 685, 786 N.W.2d 409.

         ¶32 In a similar manner we review the issue of whether a circuit court erroneously exercises its discretion when it relies on the factual basis of the read-in charge when fashioning the defendant's sentence. Frey, 343 Wis.2d 358, ¶¶37-39. "A discretionary sentencing decision will be sustained if it is based upon the facts in the record and relies on the appropriate and applicable law." Travis, 347 Wis.2d 142, ¶16.


         ¶33 At the outset we observe that the defendant is not challenging the use of a COMPAS risk assessment for decisions other than sentencing, and he is not challenging the use of the needs portion of the COMPAS report at sentencing. Instead, Loomis challenges only the use of the risk assessment portion of the COMPAS report at sentencing.

         ¶34 Specifically, Loomis asserts that the circuit court's use of a COMPAS risk assessment at sentencing violates a defendant's right to due process for three reasons: (1) it violates a defendant's right to be sentenced based upon accurate information, in part because the proprietary nature of COMPAS prevents him from assessing its accuracy; (2) it violates a defendant's right to an individualized sentence; and (3) it improperly uses gendered assessments in sentencing.

         ¶35 Although we ultimately conclude that a COMPAS risk assessment can be used at sentencing, we do so by circumscribing its use. Importantly, we address how it can be used and what limitations and cautions a circuit court must observe in order to avoid potential due process violations.

         ¶36 It is helpful to consider Loomis's due process arguments in the broader context of the evolution of evidence-based sentencing. Wisconsin has been at the forefront of advancing evidence-based practices. In 2004, this court's Planning and Policy Advisory Committee (PPAC) created a subcommittee "to explore and assess the effectiveness of policies and programs . . . designed to improve public safety and reduce incarceration."[19]

         ¶37 From that initial charge, Wisconsin's commitment to evidence-based practices and its leadership role have been well documented.[20] Initially, a variety of risk and needs assessment tools were used by various jurisdictions within the state. In 2012, however, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections selected COMPAS as the statewide assessment tool for its correctional officers, providing assessment of risk probability for pretrial release misconduct and general recidivism.[21]

         ¶38 The question of whether COMPAS can be used at sentencing has previously been addressed. In State v. Samsa, 2015 WI App. 6, 359 Wis.2d 580, 859 N.W.2d 149, the court of appeals approved of a circuit court's consideration of a COMPAS assessment at sentencing. However, it was not presented with the due process implications that we face here. Citing to a principle for sentencing courts set forth in State v. Gallion, 2002 WI App. 265, ¶26, 258 Wis.2d 473, 654 N.W.2d 446, aff'd, 2004 WI 42, 270 Wis.2d 535, 678 N.W.2d 197, the Samsa court emphasized that "COMPAS is merely one tool available to a court at the time of sentencing." 359 Wis.2d 580, ¶13.

         ¶39 In Gallion we warned of ad hoc decision making at sentencing: "Experience has taught us to be cautious when reaching high consequence conclusions about human nature that seem to be intuitively correct at the moment. Better instead is a conclusion that is based on more complete and accurate information . . . ." 270 Wis.2d 535, ¶36. We encouraged circuit courts to seek "more complete information upfront, at the time of sentencing. Judges would be assisted in knowing about a defendant's propensity for causing harm [and] the circumstances likely to precipitate the harm . . . ." Id., ¶34.

         ¶40 Concern about ad hoc decision making is justified. A myriad of determinations are made throughout the criminal justice system without consideration of tested facts of any kind. Questions such as whether to require treatment, if so what kind, and how long supervision should last often have been left to a judge's intuition or a correctional officer's standard practice.

         ¶41 The need to have additional sound information is apparent for those working in corrections, but that need is even more pronounced for sentencing courts. Sentencing decisions are guided by due process protections that may not apply to many run of the mill correctional decisions.[22] This distinction is of import given that the risk and needs assessment tools were designed for use by those within the Department of Corrections and that design is being transitioned to a sentencing venue governed by different guiding principles.

         ¶42 In response to a call to reduce recidivism by employing evidence-based practices, several states have passed legislation requiring that judges be provided with risk assessments and recidivism data at sentencing.[23] Other states permit, but do not mandate, the use of risk assessment tools at sentencing.[24]

         ¶43 But other voices are challenging the efficacy of evidence-based sentencing and raise concern about overselling the results. They urge that judges be made aware of the limitations of risk assessment tools, lest they be misused:

In the main, [supporters] have been reticent to acknowledge the paucity of reliable evidence that now exists, and the limits of the interventions about which we do possess evidence. Unless criminal justice system actors are made fully aware of the limits of the tools they are being asked to implement, they are likely to misuse them.

Cecelia Klingele, The Promises and Perils of Evidence-Based Corrections, 91 Notre Dame L. Rev. 537, 576 (2015).

         ¶44 We heed this admonition. The DOC already recognizes limitations on the PSI, instructing that "[i]t is very important to remember that risk scores are not intended to determine the severity of the sentence or whether an offender is incarcerated." We are in accord with these limitations. Further, we set forth the corollary limitation that risk scores may not be considered as the determinative factor in deciding whether the offender can be supervised safely and effectively in the community.[25]

         ¶45 In addressing Loomis's due process arguments below, we additionally raise cautions that a sentencing court must observe in order to avoid potential due process violations.


         ¶46 We turn to address Loomis's first argument that a circuit court's consideration of a COMPAS risk assessment violates a defendant's due process right to be sentenced based on accurate information. Loomis advances initially that the proprietary nature of COMPAS prevents a defendant from challenging the scientific validity of the risk assessment. Accordingly, Loomis contends that because a COMPAS risk assessment is attached to the PSI, a defendant is denied full access to information in the PSI and therefore cannot ensure that he is being sentenced based on accurate information.

         ¶47 It is well-established that "[a] defendant has a constitutionally protected due process right to be sentenced upon accurate information." Travis, 347 Wis.2d 142, ¶17. Additionally, the right to be sentenced based upon accurate information includes the right to review and verify information contained in the PSI upon which the circuit court bases its sentencing decision. State v. Skaff, 152 Wis.2d 48, 53, 447 N.W.2d 84 (Ct. App. 1989).

         ¶48 In Gardner v. Florida, 430 U.S. 349, 351 (1977) (Stevens, J., plurality opinion), the circuit court imposed the death sentence, relying in part on information in a presentence investigation report that was not disclosed to counsel for the parties. The plurality opinion concluded that the defendant "was denied due process of law when the death sentence was imposed, at least in part, on the basis of information which he had no opportunity to deny or explain." Id. at 362.

         ¶49 Following Gardner, the Wisconsin court of appeals determined that it was an erroneous exercise of discretion for the circuit court to categorically deny disclosure of the PSI to a defendant.[26] Skaff, 152 Wis.2d at 58. The Skaff court explained that if the PSI was incorrect or incomplete, no person was in a better position than the defendant to refute, explain, or supplement the PSI. Id. at 57. Accordingly, until the defendant reviews his PSI, its accuracy cannot be verified. Id. at 58.

         ¶50 Skaff reasoned that given the discretion accorded the circuit court in sentencing decisions, any significant inaccuracies would likely affect the defendant's sentence. Id. Therefore, denial of access to the PSI denied the defendant "an essential factor of due process, i.e., a procedure conducive to sentencing based on correct information." Id. at 57 (citing Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 335 (1976)).

         ¶51 Loomis analogizes the COMPAS risk assessment to the PSI in Gardner and Skaff. Northpointe, Inc., the developer of COMPAS, considers COMPAS a proprietary instrument and a trade secret. Accordingly, it does not disclose how the risk scores are determined or how the factors are weighed. Loomis asserts that because COMPAS does not disclose this information, he has been denied information which the circuit court considered at sentencing.

         ¶52 He argues that he is in the best position to refute or explain the COMPAS risk assessment, but cannot do so based solely on a review of the scores as reflected in the bar charts. Additionally, Loomis contends that unless he can review how the factors are weighed and how risk scores are determined, the accuracy of the COMPAS assessment cannot be verified.[27]

         ¶53 Loomis's analogy to Gardner and Skaff is imperfect. Although Loomis cannot review and challenge how the COMPAS algorithm calculates risk, he can at least review and challenge the resulting risk scores set forth in the report attached to the PSI. At the heart of Gardner and Skaff is the fact that the court relied on information the defendant did not have any opportunity to refute, supplement or explain. Gardner, 430 U.S. at 362. That is not the case here.

         ¶54 Loomis is correct that the risk scores do not explain how the COMPAS program uses information to calculate the risk scores. However, Northpointe's 2015 Practitioner's Guide to COMPAS explains that the risk scores are based largely on static information (criminal history), with limited use of some dynamic variables (i.e. criminal associates, substance abuse).[28]

         ¶55 The COMPAS report attached to Loomis's PSI contains a list of 21 questions and answers regarding these static factors such as:

• How many times has this person been returned to custody while on parole? 5
• How many times has this person had a new charge/arrest while on probation? 4
• How many times has this person been arrested before as an adult or juvenile (criminal arrest only)? 12

         Thus, to the extent that Loomis's risk assessment is based upon his answers to questions and publicly available data about his criminal history, Loomis had the opportunity to verify that the questions and answers listed on the COMPAS report were accurate.

         ¶56 Additionally, this is not a situation in which portions of a PSI are considered by the circuit court, but not released to the defendant. The circuit court and Loomis had access to the same copy of the risk assessment. Loomis had an opportunity to challenge his risk scores by arguing that other factors or information demonstrate their inaccuracy.

         ¶57 Yet, regardless of whether Gardner and Skaff are analogous to this case, Loomis correctly asserts that defendants have the right to be sentenced based on accurate information. Travis, 347 Wis.2d 142, ¶17.

         ¶58 Some states that use COMPAS have conducted validation studies of COMPAS concluding that it is a sufficiently accurate risk assessment tool.[29] New York State's Division of Criminal Justice Services conducted a study examining a COMPAS assessment's recidivism scale's effectiveness and predictive accuracy and concluded that "the Recidivism Scale worked effectively and achieved satisfactory predictive accuracy."[30]Unlike New York and other states, Wisconsin has not yet completed a statistical validation study of COMPAS for a Wisconsin population.[31]

         ¶59 However, Loomis relies on other studies of risk assessment tools that have raised questions about their accuracy.[32] For example, he cites to a 2007 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation ("CDCR") study which concludes that although COMPAS appears to be assessing criminogenic needs and recidivism risk, "there is little evidence that this is what [] COMPAS actually assesses."[33]

         ¶60 The California Study reached the further conclusion that there "is no sound evidence that the COMPAS can be rated consistently by different evaluators, that it assesses the criminogenic needs it purports to assess, and (most importantly) that it predicts inmates' recidivism for CDCR offenders."[34]Ultimately, the authors of the study could not recommend that CDCR use COMPAS for individuals.[35]

         ¶61 Subsequently, however, the CDCR published its 2010 final report on California's COMPAS validation study.[36] The 2010 study concluded that although not perfect, "COMPAS is a reliable instrument. . . ."[37] Specifically, it explained that the general recidivism risk scale achieved the value of .70, which is the conventional standard, though the violence risk scale did not.[38]

         ¶62 In addition to these problems, there is concern that risk assessment tools may disproportionately classify minority offenders as higher risk, often due to factors that may be outside their control, such as familial background and education.[39] Other state studies indicate that COMPAS is more predictive of recidivism among white offenders than black offenders.[40]

         ¶63 A recent analysis of COMPAS's recidivism scores based upon data from 10, 000 criminal defendants in Broward County, Florida, concluded that black defendants "were far more likely than white defendants to be incorrectly judged to be at a higher risk of recidivism."[41] Likewise, white defendants were more likely than black defendants to be incorrectly flagged as low risk.[42] Although Northpointe disputes this analysis, this study and others raise concerns regarding how a COMPAS assessment's risk factors correlate with race.[43]

         ¶64 Additional concerns are raised about the need to closely monitor risk assessment tools for accuracy. At least one commentator has explained that in order to remain accurate, risk assessment tools "must be constantly re-normed for changing populations and subpopulations." Klingele, The Promises and Perils of Evidence-Based Corrections, 91 Notre Dame L. Rev. at 576. Accordingly, jurisdictions that utilize risk assessment tools must ensure they have the capacity for maintaining those tools and monitoring their continued accuracy. Id. at 577.

         ¶65 Focusing exclusively on its use at sentencing and considering the expressed due process arguments regarding accuracy, we determine that use of a COMPAS risk assessment must be subject to ...

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