In the Tom Cruise film Minority Report, authorities didn’t wait for crime to just happen. They peered into the future, decided who was going to commit crimes, and locked those people up for acts they hadn’t committed yet.
Sounds futuristic, right? Well, a version of that might be coming to Pennsylvania.
“Pennsylvania is on the verge of becoming one of the first states in the country to base criminal sentences not only on what crimes people have been convicted of, but also on whether they are deemed likely to commit additional crimes,” the website Five Thirty Eight reports. “As early as next year, judges there could receive statistically derived tools known as risk assessments to help them decide how much prison time — if any — to assign.”
There will be no psychics involved — just math and probability formulas to determine one’s likelihood of breaking the law again.
Risk assessment tools have been used in law enforcement previously, the site reports, spreading to every level of the criminal justice system over the last two decades.
“But Pennsylvania is about to take a step most states have until now resisted for adult defendants: using risk assessment in sentencing itself. A state commission is putting the finishing touches on a plan that, if implemented as expected, could allow some offenders considered low risk to get shorter prison sentences than they would otherwise or avoid incarceration entirely. Those deemed high risk could spend more time behind bars.”
There are, naturally, critics — like Bradley Bridge, an attorney with the Defender Association of Philadelphia. “This is a compounding problem,” Bridge told Five Thirty Eight. “Once they’ve been arrested once, they are more likely to be arrested a second or a third time — not because they’ve necessarily done anything more than anyone else has, but because they’ve been arrested once or twice beforehand.”
The defense? Such tools work. “When implemented correctly, whether in the fields of medicine, finance or criminal justice, statistical actuarial tools are accurate at predicting human behavior — about 10 percent more accurate than experts assessing without the assistance of such a tool, according to a 2000 paper by a team of psychologists at the University of Minnesota,”‘ Five Thirty Eight reports.
The law enabling such “risk assessments” was actually passed all the way back in 2010 and signed by then-Gov. Ed Rendell. The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing has been studying it since then. At the time of its passage, it was widely praised as tool for easing prison overcrowding, by giving lighter sentences to convicts deemed to be at lesser risk of future crime.
“Our prison system is at its breaking point,” ACLU legislative director Andy Hoover said at the time. The bill, he said, “is another sign that the Legislature is getting smart on crime.”