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I know what you did next summer

Monday, March 28, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

Wouldn’t it be handy to be able to predict the future behavior of others?  Not to mention kind of disturbing?  Like in the 2002 film Minority Report. There are times we have to try—like in assessing future dangerousness for those eligible for parole.  And, in those cases, when we are wrong, bad bad things can happen. In the case of the release of Domenic Cinelli, the Massachusetts parole board made a tragic decision. There is a fascinating article over at the Boston Globe on the story.

“There has been a strong move toward the use of risk assessment instruments in the criminal justice system in recent years,” said John Monahan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia Law School who has been studying models of prediction since the 1970s. “The science of risk assessment is much better now than it was 20 years ago.”

Historically, our efforts to predict the future have included phrenology (identifying delinquent tendencies through feeling head bumps and skull shapes). That didn’t work so well. Now there are tests that measure character traits and individual experiences to identify risk factors for the person returning to criminal activity. There are now more than 120 such measures. (Here, as an example, is the Violence Risk Appraisal Guide [VRAG] and a link to the COMPAS site.)

The measures include things like past behavior (long the best predictor of future behavior) and age (older people are less likely to reoffend than younger people) but also other intriguing variables:

If your victim was female you are less likely to re-offend than if your victim was male.

Emotional health (i.e., depression, anxiety or low self-esteem) does not predict future behavior).

Murderers are less likely to reoffend than those that merely injured their victims.

Why the instruments work (or don’t work) is a matter of debate. Some of the researchers say people don’t change and their risk factors stay the same. Others say treatment can make a difference. Others (specifically, Bernard Harcourt at the University of Chicago) say we are basically categorizing by race even though the variable of ‘race’ is studiously avoided—other questions serve as proxies for race. So the question becomes one of whether you believe in the power of rehabilitation (or perhaps redemption).

Even harder questions may lie ahead. Berk, the University of Pennsylvania professor, said that as the data available to researchers get better, and the algorithms that are used to analyze it improve, we may find ourselves staring at uncomfortable predictions that leave us at a loss as to what to do with them. Berk’s method is to take into account as much data about people as is available — even if there’s no reason to think it would correlate with crime — and let massively powerful computers figure out what’s useful and what isn’t. Conceivably, these computers could discover that predictions could be made using someone’s shoe size and the kind of car their parents drove when they were kids.

“This is the nightmare that I have,” Berk said. “Supposing I am able to tell a mother that her 8-year-old has a one in three chance of committing a homicide by age 18. What the hell do I do with that information? What do the various social services do with that information? I don’t know.”

Maybe this predicting the future thing isn’t such a good idea after all.

Harris, G.T. & Rice, M.E. (2010). Assessment of risk and dangerousness in adults. In J. Brown & E.A. Campbell (Eds.) Cambridge handbook of forensic psychology. (pp. 299-306). New York: Cambridge University Press.

HARRIS, G., RICE, M., & QUINSEY, V. (1993). Violent Recidivism of Mentally Disordered Offenders: The Development of a Statistical Prediction Instrument Criminal Justice and Behavior, 20 (4), 315-335 DOI: 10.1177/0093854893020004001

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