Life Imitates Art: Computer Software to Aid in Crime Prevention

Life Imitates Art: Computer Software to Aid in Crime Prevention

In the 2002 motion picture “The Minority Report,” crime is virtually eliminated from Washington D.C., in the year 2054, thanks to an elite law enforcement squad called “Precrime.” They use three gifted humans (called “Pre-Cogs”) with special powers, enabling them to see into the future, predicting crimes before they’re committed.

The film’s central theme is the question of free-will versus determinism, and examines whether free will can exist if the future is set and known in advance. Other themes include the role of preventive government in protecting its citizenry, the role of media in a future state where electronic advancements make its presence nearly boundless, the potential legality of an infallible prosecutor.

This scenario, however futuristic it may seem, is now closer to reality than one may suspect. Federal officials in Washington D.C. are gearing up to use computer software that will enable them to predict the potential for newly paroled convicts to commit murder or other serious crimes.

Law enforcement and prison officials in Baltimore, MD and Philadelphia, PA have been using University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Berk’s software to determine the level of supervision each parolee requires, based on the probability of that person committing a homicide after release.

“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?'” Berk said.

Berk’s software analyzes data compiled from more than 60,000 crimes, and interfaces with the records of individual parolees, to determine any likelihood that they will be repeat offenders. The software’s algorithm compares the historical data of each parolee, including past criminal offenses, geographical location, age at which crimes were committed, and then makes predictions about the potential for future crimes.

“People assume that if someone murdered, then they will murder in the future,” said Berk. “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.”

Berk’s software is “very impressive,” said Shawn Bushway, a professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Albany, but added that it could also create potential Civil Rights problems because of increased scrutiny on inmates and parolees. The potential, he said, is for the predictions to be wrong.

“[You could be] 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.”

On November 29th, 2008, an exclamation point was added to this whole debate. In Spain, 60 year-old Maximino Couto, who was serving time for threats made against his ex-wife and children, murdered his girlfriend and injured three others, including one of the arresting officers, during a four day pass while wearing a GPS tracker bracelet.

After murdering his girlfriend  – 57 year-old María José Peso – at her home, Couto, who was due to be released on December 19th, made his way to his ex-wife’s home to find that neither she nor her children were there. On December 16, 2008, Couto hanged himself in his cell with a bed sheet. According to hand-written notes found in his cell his intent was to kill them too.

It seems that the prison official whose job it was to monitor Couto’s movements failed in his duty. So even with the technological advances, isn’t the system of checks and balances still dependent upon the vigilance of probation and parole officers? And isn’t it the requisite duty of our criminal justice system to insure the safety of innocent citizens?

The central theme of “Minority Report” may well have proffered the question of free-will versus determinism, and examined whether free will can exist if the future is set and known in advance. Yet for Maximino Couto and María José Peso it is doubtful that any amount of analysis rendered by a computer software program could have prevented this tragedy.