Posted on February 4, 2013

Minority Report Has Arrived: Maryland and Pennsylvania Using Computers to Predict Future Crimes

Harriet Arkell, Daily Mail (London), January 11, 2013

When police in Minority Report predicted who would commit crimes and stopped them before they did it, it was considered so futuristic, the film was set in 2054.

Now, however, law enforcers in two American states are using crime-prediction software to predict which freed prisoners are most likely to commit murder, and supervising them accordingly.

Instead of relying on parole officers to decide how much supervision inmates will need on the outside by looking at their records, the new system uses a computer algorithm to decide for them.

The Minority Report-style software is already being used in Baltimore and Philadelphia to predict future murderers, and will be extended to Washington D.C. soon.

It has been developed by Professor Richard Berk, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who believes it will reduce the murder rate and those of other crimes.

Prof. Berk says his algorithm could be used to help set bail amounts and also decide sentences in the future.  It could also be modified to predict lesser crimes.

He told ABC News that currently parole officers are using their own judgment to decide what level of supervision each parolee should have, based on their criminal record.

His software, he said, replaces that ‘ad-hoc’ decision making, and should identify eight future murderers out of 100.

He said: ‘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.’

Prof. Berk’s researchers used the details of more than 60,000 crimes then wrote an algorithm to find the people behind the crimes who were more likely to commit murder when they were out of prison.

Criteria including criminal record, type of crime, location, and age at which the individual committed the crime were analysed, with type of crime and age proving to be the most reliable predictors of future crime.

He said even his students at the University of Pennsylvania compared his work to Minority Report, the 2002 film starring Tom Cruise in which gifted humans called ‘PreCogs’ can see into the future and predict who will commit crimes.

In the film, Cruise plays the elite crime squad head Chief John Anderton, who himself is accused of committing a murder in the future.

Prof. Berk’s work has been described as ‘very impressive’ by Shawn Bushway, a professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Albany.

However he cautioned that human rights campaigners might see that the extra supervision mandated by the software for those deemed most likely to murder might amount to harassment.