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Can Technology Predict Whether Released Prisoners Will Commit Crimes Again?

Baltimore and Philadelphia are the first cities to use crime prediction software.

One of the great advantages of technology is that it can sometimes eliminate human error. In the case of potentially violent criminals, technology could actually make cities safer. An algorithm written by University of Pennsylvania criminology and statistics professor Richard Berk is already being used in several U.S. cities, including Baltimore and Philadelphia, to predict whether convicted murderers will commit the crime again while on parole. It is designed to help parole officers determine the level of supervision parolees need, with the goal of keeping violent prisoners behind bars:

To create the software, researchers assembled a dataset of more than 60,000 crimes, including homicides, then wrote an algorithm to find the people behind the crimes who were more likely to commit murder when paroled or put on probation. Berk claims the software could identify eight future murderers out of 100.

The software parses about two dozen variables, including criminal record and geographic location. The type of crime and the age at which it was committed, however, turned out to be two of the most predictive variables.

Read U.S. Cities Relying on Precog Software to Predict Murder on Wired.

The technology is eerily reminiscent of the movie “Minority Report,” where the Precrime department prevents crimes before they happen.

Not surprisingly, opponents of the software are vocal about potential problems. Just as a human could misjudge a parolee, the algorithm could fail to take into account a crucial detail that could predict a future crime. Alternatively, it could falsely predict that individuals are dangerous, when in fact they are not.

Scientifically, Berk's results are "very impressive," said Shawn Bushway, a professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Albany who is familiar with Berk's research.

Predicting rare events like murder, even among high-risk individuals, is extremely difficult, said Bushway, and Berk is doing a better job of it than anyone else.

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.

Read Software Predicts Criminal Behavior on ABC News.

Technology is transforming public safety in a number of ways. Read more about how police departments are using social media to track down criminals.

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Jan 16 2013 Spice IT

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