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Guilty until proven innocent?

In the 2002 movie Minority Report, Tom Cruise’s character, police Chief John Anderton, leads Washington D.C.’s “Pre-crime” unit that uses a trio of gifted humans (“Pre-cogs”) to see the future and prevent crime before it actually happens. The Pre-cogs are trusted so implicitly in the year 2054 A.D. that future criminals are punished for crimes they supposedly would have committed before being stopped by police.

While the idea of predicting crime using a psychic threesome of semi-conscious Pre-cogs pushes the envelope on sci-fi justice, the general concept of future crime prediction is taking shape in major U.S. cities today. University of Pennsylvania criminologist Richard Berk has developed an algorithm that he claims can predict which murderers will kill again. The cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia are using Berk’s crime-predicting software and, eerily, Washington D.C. is next.

Berk’s algorithm analyzes around two-dozen factors to determine a paroled murderer’s propensity to kill again. Berk claims the software can estimate eight out of 100 repeat killers. The idea is to pinpoint the worst of the worst and give parole officers hard data to determine which parolees need the most intense supervision. It could possibly be used to set bond amounts and guide judges in determining the most appropriate sentences.

The algorithm demonstrates that certain factors are more telling than others. “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.”

The danger

Predicting and preventing future crime sounds great, right? But what happens when the algorithm gets it wrong? We take pride in the United States on a justice system built upon the presumption of innocence – that a person is innocent until proven guilty. But Berk’s algorithm does nothing less than punish eight in 100 people for crimes they have not, and probably will not, commit. Such a system flies directly in the face of American justice and due process.

Nevertheless, the program is rolling forward despite the heavy risk of false positive identification of future murderers. If Berk’s algorithm takes hold in America’s criminal justice system, no one is safe from being labeled a criminal before they commit any crime. The presumption of innocence will quickly become a presumption of guilt. What seemed so unfathomable about the premise of Minority Report could soon become reality. The year 2054 A.D. may be much closer than you think.

You have the right to be represented by an attorney

If you or a loved one has been accused of a crime, contact a criminal defense attorney to discuss your situation, your options and to protect the very rights that may soon be slipping away.