Friday, April 22, 2011

The Cautionary Instruction: Crime Prediction Comes to Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
April 22, 2011

Imagine representing a client who, after pleading guilty, finds out that her sentence is being enhanced because a forecasting tool used by the court indicated that she is a high risk to re-offend.

Sound a little Orwellian? The future is now in Pennsylvania.

Last fall, then-Governor Edward Rendell signed into law a prison reform bill that directed the Commission on Sentencing to adopt a sentence risk assessment instrument to aid in determining appropriate sentences.

Pennsylvania is not alone. The National Conference of State Legislators reported that at least five states since 2009 have adopted some form of risk assessment procedure with respect to sentencing.

The concept is not new. The Commonwealth of Virginia has used risk assessment in sentencing for 15 years. The higher the assessment score, the less likely the offender will be diverted from prison. The result has been fewer people in prison and a crime rate lower than the national average.

Risk forecasting is not just relegated to the courtroom. Police departments have been refining forecasting over the last two decades.

“You can kind of think of crime as a disease. If a crime happens, we can see how it affects the likelihood that another incident is going to happen within a certain area in a certain amount of time after that,” said Jeremy Heffner of Azavea, a firm specializing in geographic information system mapping.

For instance, Heffner suggests that if a residential burglary occurs within a specific neighborhood the chances that another will occur in that neighborhood increase as a result of the first crime, much like a contained outbreak of disease in a given area.

“It’s like trying to find the needle in the haystack,” warns University of Pennsylvania Professor Richard Berk.

Berk’s research for Philadelphia probation assembled a dataset of more than 60,000 various crimes, including homicide. The model examined more than 24 variables including criminal history, age at first crime, gender, the type of crime and where the crime was committed.

Through powerful computer analysis Berk found a subset of people much more likely to commit homicide when released from prison. However, Berk and his colleagues also revealed a subset of offenders who were least likely to re-offend -- a significant finding in these lean economic times.

Risk assessment is here to stay. Mark H. Bergstrom, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing has suggested, “Risk assessments should always be seen as a tool residing in a larger tool box of information that a judge can refer to when pondering the sentencing decisions.”

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