The Cautionary Instruction: Predicting crime is fine, predicting criminals ... not so fast

Friday, 22 August 2014 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

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Predictive analytics has made its way into the criminal justice system through the use of assessments to predict future risk. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder doesn’t think it’s a good idea.

Predictive analytics is the process by which analysts are able extract information from a huge amount of data in order to reveal patterns and make predictions about what might happen in the future. Predictive analytics is not a crystal ball, but it is a tool that looks into the future with an acceptable level of reliability.

Holder cautioned against the use of data in sentencing criminal defendants, saying judges should base punishment on the facts of a crime rather than on statistical predictions of future behavior that can be unfair to minorities.

"Criminal sentences must be based on the facts, the law, the actual crimes committed, the circumstances surrounding each individual case, and the defendant's history of criminal conduct. They should not be based on unchangeable factors that a person cannot control, or on the possibility of a future crime that has not taken place," Holder said.

The concept is not new. The Commonwealth of Virginia has used risk assessment in sentencing for 15 years. The higher the assessment score, the less likely the offender will be diverted from prison. The result has been fewer people in prison and a crime rate lower than the national average.

Risk forecasting is not just relegated to the courtroom. Police departments have been refining forecasting over the last two decades.

Five years ago, Holder’s justice department sponsored a National Institute of Justice Symposium on Predictive Policing. Then Assistant Attorney General Laurie O. Robinson told the conference attendees, “Eric Holder is thinking a great deal about where we are in the evolution of law enforcement. He knows, as all of you do, that we’re at a point where some very strategic, and collaborative, thinking is in order.”

Predictive policing is the use of analytical techniques to identify promising targets for police intervention with the goal of preventing crime, solving past crimes, and identifying potential offenders and victims. These techniques can help departments address crime problems more effectively and efficiently.

Jeremy Heffner of Azavea, a firm specializing in geographic information system mapping said, “You can kind of think of crime as a disease. If a crime happens, we can see how it affects the likelihood that another incident is going to happen within a certain area in a certain amount of time after that.”

(Image: adrian825/iStock)


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His new book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010: The Crimes, Arrests, Trials, Appeals, Last Meals, Final Words and Executions of 46 Persons in the United States is now available from McFarland & Company publishers.

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