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The dangerous possibilities of crime prediction technology

For some in the law enforcement community, the Holy Grail would be a system that allows police to predict crimes and apprehend would-be criminals before those crimes are committed. This concept was popularized by the 2002 film Minority Report.

While the methods used in that film are science fiction, real-life scientists and social scientists are working on ways to predict crimes - or at least to identify individuals who are likely to commit them. Even if certain models prove to be accurate, there are serious ethical concerns with how such tools could be used.

This isn't entirely theoretical. According to the results of one recent study, offenders who exhibit what's known as "homicidal ideation" (thoughts of committing deadly violence) are significantly more likely to commit a variety of serious crimes.

After studying a group of offenders in the criminal justice system, researchers found that:

  • About 12 percent of observed offenders showed signs of homicidal ideation, and this group was responsible for the majority of "severe" crimes
  • Offenders in this group had committed their first crime around the age of 14 and had been arrested dozens of times
  • Offenders with homicidal ideation often "have these pervasive thoughts and feelings about killing even in early childhood," according to an author of the study

Although interesting and perhaps helpful from a public safety standpoint, it is important to ask: How can and how should such information be used?

If we could identify the likeliest individuals to commit murder, rape and other violent crimes, some would argue that we could focus on reforming these individuals by offering treatment, social services and careful monitoring once they are released from prison (if they have previous convictions).

But there will be others who say that, once identified, these individuals should be locked up for life - whether or not they have committed a crime that would warrant such a sentence. In other words, being identified as a potential murder would effectively determine the rest of an individual's life.

Even if crime- and criminal-prediction tools are not available today, they very well could be available in the near future. Now is the time to have discussions about the ethical implications of such tools - before any innocent person is convicted without ever having committed a crime.

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