Almost a decade ago, Steven Spielberg directed The Minority Report, set in 2054 and packed with eye-catching visual effects. The film featured cool-looking cars designed by Lexus and envisioned what our metropolitan transportation system might look like in 50 years -- a computer-controlled environment in which magnetic levitation cars travel at high speed on horizontal and vertical roadways without traffic stops.
The storyline of this film is even more provocative. In the film, three psychics called “Precogs” sense criminal intent for murder and the government proactively responds to the yet-to-be murderer. The future murderer is then sentenced to prison for a crime that has yet to occur.
The thing is, we may still be decades away from shopping around for a magnetic levitation car, but we have already begun identifying future criminals and taking preventive measures. Around the country, many criminal justice agencies now focus resources on high-risk offenders identified by an empirical prediction model. Despite legal concerns, risk prediction has many applications across all stages of the criminal justice system. The role of pretrial agencies seems particularly relevant to the idea of preventative government. When the police make an arrest, the arrestee is scheduled to appear in court for hearings. Pretrial agencies are typically responsible for managing these arrestees until the court determines guilt or innocence. Many such agencies now use empirical models to predict how likely defendants would flee or commit crimes if released to the community. This prediction informs their recommendations to the court about whether to release arrestees or what kind of supervision restrictions to impose on them.
In the District of Columbia, the pretrial services agency makes risk predictions for about 20,000 defendants annually. That’s a lot of people whose lives depend on statistical models. No wonder scientists and policymakers engineering these models feel pressured (and they should) to get the science right. Even so, that’s not the hardest part of this puzzle.
Spielberg challenges the notion of preventative government, playing with the classic debate on free will versus determinism. Even if we get the science right, shouldn’t human beings be free to make undetermined choices? Can we really act on foreknowledge, however reliable, of indeterminate human behavior? This age-old question remains fresh today, especially applied to today’s criminal justice practices, and warns us to safeguard against making false predictions.