Predicting future crimes

Professor Richard Berk from the University of Pennsylvania has developed software that predicts which criminals on probation or parole will commit future crimes. His software is already being used in Baltimore and Philadelphia and soon will be used in Washington, D.C.

Here is a quick description of how the algorithm was developed:

Beginning several years ago, the researchers assembled a dataset of more than 60,000 various crimes, including homicides. Using an algorithm they developed, they found a subset of people much more likely to commit homicide when paroled or probated. Instead of finding one murderer in 100, the UPenn researchers could identify eight future murderers out of 100.

Berk’s software examines roughly two dozen variables, from criminal record to geographic location. The type of crime, and more importantly, the age at which that crime was committed, were two of the most predictive variables.

Of course, there could be some problems with this:

But Berk’s scientific answer leaves policymakers with difficult questions, said Bushway. By labeling one group of people as high risk, and monitoring them with increased vigilance, there should be fewer murders, which the potential victims should be happy about.

It also means that those high-risk individuals will be monitored more aggressively. For inmate rights advocates, that is tantamount to harassment, “punishing people who, most likely, will not commit a crime in the future,” said Bushway.

“It comes down to a question of whether you would rather make these errors or those errors,” said Bushway.

I would be curious to see reports on the effectiveness of this software over time. And determining whether this software is effective in areas like reducing crime would present some interesting measurement issues.