News Stories

Predicting Crimes

BEFORE they occur - In the 2002 film "Minority Report," Tom Cruise plays a detective in the future who is able to solve crimes BEFORE they occurred. As scientists learn about the personality types of sociopaths, psychopaths, and other people who commit crimes, we may face a future where we have the touch choice of deciding whether to incarcerate potential criminals BEFORE they commit a crime.

On example of a beginning of this is the new crime prediction software which is being tested in Washington, D.C., in hopes that it can reduce both the murder and crime rate by predicting which ex-cons on parole are the most likely to either murder or be murdered. It is already being used in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

On the ABC News website, Eric Bland quotes its inventor, Richard Berk, as saying, "When a person goes on probation or parole they are supervised by an officer. The question that officer has to answer is 'what level of supervision do you provide?'" It used to be that parole officers used the person's criminal record, and their good judgment, to determine that level. "This research replaces those seat-of-the-pants calculations."

Thankfully, murders are actually rather rare, averaging about one for every 100,000 people in the general population. Bland quotes Berk as saying, "It's like trying to find the needle in the haystack." But among high-risk groups like ex-cons, the rate is more like one in 100.

Berk and his team compiled data on over 60,000 various crimes, including homicides. They developed a mathematical formula that identified the type of people who were likely to commit murder on parole or probation. With this information, researchers could narrow down the high-risk group from one in 100 to 8 out of 100. Bland quotes Berk as saying, "People assume that if someone murdered then they will murder in the future, but what really matters is what that person did as a young individual. If they committed armed robbery at age 14 that's a good predictor. If they committed the same crime at age 30, that doesn't predict very much." The people the computer identifies as psychopaths can then be monitored closely by the local police.

Bland quotes criminal justice expert Shawn Bushway as saying that the problem with this is that this means we are "punishing people who, most likely, will not commit a crime in the future [but] it comes down to a question of whether you would rather make these errors or those errors."

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