Risk management: New computer model helps Philly officers predict criminal potential

We rely on computers for a lot of things: email, keeping a calendar, and now … predicting criminal behavior. A University of Pennsylvania professor’s computer modeling program is helping make probation and parole decisions in Philadelphia.

Computers are helping predict an individual’s potential to commit crime, says Richard Berk, a professor of statistics and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Berk did the research and wrote the code for the computer model that he says spits out a green, yellow or red evaluation.

“Green says good risk, red says bad risk, yellow says in between,” Berk said. “And the risk we’re referring to is the risk of committing a violent crime — you will supervise the reds much more intensely than you will the greens.

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“Those forecasts are taken very seriously by the Philadelphia Department of Probation and Parole,” he said.Berk says the computer gets the same sort of data that’s available to the humans who make the decisions. But the computer can complete tasks that dizzy the human mind.

“It looks through hundreds of thousands of cases of individuals — some of whom have, let’s say, succeeded on parole and some of whom have not succeeded on parole,” he said. “It tries to see what about these different kinds of individuals differs.”

That troubles Bradley Bridge, an attorney with the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

“When we’ve started going down a road that removes humanity from a process, we ultimately become more and more inhumane,” Bridge said.

But Berk says it’s been such a success, he’s taking the next step.

“We are in the process of building forecasting procedures that, at least in principle, could help forecast sentencing decisions.” he says. “They wouldn’t be the final determining factor, but they would be a factor that judges would certainly think about when they decided to sentence someone — including whether or not to incarcerate someone or put them out on probation.

“That process is probably about a year away if it’s going to be operational,” he said.

But Bridge says he’s uncomfortable with the idea.

“We’re saying to a judge, go over to the crystal ball and come up with a magic number,” he said. “I’m comfortable with judges looking at a particular defendant during sentencing, looking that defendant in the eye, asking them questions, gauging their sincerity.”

Bridge said he’d prefer to have a human assessing whether a criminal has really changed his ways.

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