Let’s Talk about “Precrime”

This is a slightly edited version of a post that originally appeared on the Neuroethics Blog.

Pre-crime is exactly what it sounds like; it is the science of predicting when crimes are likely to happen and trying to intervene and prevent them. The idea that police officers could prevent crime by predicting it captures the public imagination in a big way, leading to a lot of sensationalism. There were a series of articles starting in 2004 about London’s so-called “Homocide Prevention Unit,” which captured public imagination so much it had a television show based on it.[1] According to more recent reports, the HPU identifies dangerous individuals based on psychological profile and reportedly maintains a list of the top 100 most dangerous individuals in London. In 2006, the First Judicial District of Philadelphia announced a partnership with the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology which, among other things, created a special unit in the Philly police department to “treat and supervise convicted felons who have the greatest risk of being charged with murder.”  In press releases, the organization was sometimes called the Homicide Prevention Unit and sometimes called the Strategic Anti-Violence Unit (SAV-U).

However, in these cases, what the media is calling “precrime” are criminal justice units tasked with identifying specific people who are either at-risk of victimization or likely to commit violent crimes. This is not exactly science fiction. Police departments, like the section of the Met that made headlines in 2004, use intelligence units to predict the likelihood of certain types of violent crime. Some courts employ working units that use sociological and psychological research methods to identify and supervise parolees who pose the greatest risk of recidivism. The city of Philadelphia has an Anti-Violence Supervision Program  designed to help paroled offenders who they predict will commit “murder, attempted murder, rape (or other sex offenses), robbery, or aggravated assault.”[2] News media like to imagine these units are on the forefront of precrime when in fact the tactics they employ are not all that “futuristic.”

In fact, if we frame all crime prevention as precrime, then it’s not hard to see how this is actually in effect all around us all the time. There are many general intervention strategies designed to lower crime rates or educate vulnerable populations. Anyone of roughly my generation will remember the D.A.R.E. program, which was both about preventing drug addiction and lowering drug crime rates. (but by many accounts it failed spectacularly on both fronts.) Programs like this could theoretically be seen as part of the “precrime” umbrella, in that they are generally designed to target at-risk populations (here, pre-teens) before they engage in criminal activity and try to give them the education necessary to avoid that criminal behavior. Programs like this also focus on prevention of victimization- and here you can imagine the “Stranger Danger” programs of the same era (which also failed spectacularly.)  There are much more effective modern versions of these kinds of programs; CDC has an initiative specifically aimed at violence prevention.

Media sensationalism and television dramas aside, these programs are widespread, and their methods are not really that experimental. Whether criminologists are employing sociological or psychological methods, one of the major points of understanding crime has always been to reduce the amount of it that is happening. And as controversial as things like the forensic psychiatric prediction of future dangerous are (and have been),[3] the fact is that the actual strategies employed by criminal justice units attempting to reduce crime rates are not exactly the stuff of science fiction. It also isn’t what intrigues us about precrime in a neurological age.

To understand how precrime would work, neurologically, we first have to understand the ways that neuroscience is already effecting forensics.  As I mentioned previously, there is the idea that if fMRI brain scans result in rudimentary “mind-reading,” then someone could be arrested if a brain scan shows they are planning a crime. However, there is a giant difference between getting facts about behavior and gleaning intent, and having this information via a brain scan does not mean we are actually “reading minds.” Let me give an example: let’s say you have a person who undergoes a brain scan, perhaps for medical reasons, or perhaps as part of a futuristic lie detection test. The people reading the scan notice that this individual’s brain shows evidence of prolonged and severe feelings of anger or depression, some preoccupation with death, and that they are telling the truth about a recent gun purchase. They alert the authorities because the pattern of facts indicates this person may be a danger to themselves or to someone else.

Sound familiar?

This isn’t a new procedure- this is, in fact, facts from a hypothetical brain scan being interpreted in the same way facts from a verbal patient history or a psychological evaluation would be interpreted. This individual might, based on this information, be held on a psychiatric hold for a few hours or a few days, but the intervention would be a medical one- not a criminal one. New technology does not always result in total systemic change.

However, there is another area of neurology and precrime, and this has to do with the idea that your brain contains your “fundamental nature.” Neuroscience is imagined to uncover who you are in a way that prior sociological or psychological methods alone could not.[4] This includes being able to calculate things you are and are not likely to do, familiar territory for Neuroethics. Frequent readers of this blog have seen discussions about free willautonomycriminal responsibility, and the ethics of prediction vs. intervention. When it comes to neuroscience and the courtroom, a lot of discussion centers on the fear of criminal actors blaming their brains for their decisions and shirking actual responsibility. As a result, you have neuroscience enthusiasts and neuroethics scholars debating what will happen if researchers are able to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that every action a person takes can be traced through a network of neurons firing. This, as one set of scholars recently argued, “challenges the very notion of conscious will on which the criminal system is based.” [5] 

 Now, consider what happens when we reverse engineer “My Brain Made Me Do It.” Researchers figure out, a) the specific characteristics of a “murderer’s brain” and b) the environmental factors most likely to trip the “murderer’s brain” into committing murder. Instead of using that information to retroactively explain a murder, “precrime” technology would use it to contain people before they commit murders. This is of great ethical concern, and rightfully so, as it is generally considered a violation of the U.S. Constitution to hold someone just because they might commit a crime in the future. [6] In order to accurately match brain scans to criminal histories and then spot patterns, researchers would have to keep large databases of personal information, and these databases would have to include people who had not yet committed crimes.

Given that these issues are highly controversial, it is not that there will be a giant prison built just to hold all of the future “brain-criminals” anytime soon. However – this does not mean that police units cannot use this sort of information to help focus surveillance. And if this sounds more immediately frightening to you than the “brain-criminal” prison, perhaps that is because we know police units already do this. We know they do this because we all already do this. This is the exact reasoning behind sex offender registries, community notification laws, and publicly searchable police records, systems built on the understanding that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior and that knowledge is the best defense. What if patterns of past behavior were bolstered, not only with a sense of “mental abnormality” as they are with sexual predators, but with tags for “violence” alleles and “criminal impulsivity” brain malformations? Is that a potentially problematic use of such information, or is that just using science to design a more efficient criminal justice system? Let me know what you think!

[1] I say “so-called” because although it is identified as the HPU in a few press releases, I cannot find any official documentation of this unit, although there is a Specialist Crime and Operations Bureau.

[2] It is unclear whether the Anti-Violence supervision division mentioned later is a descendant of the prior relationship with UPenn.

[3] In the early 1990s, as laws targeting violent sex offenders were weathering their first constitutional challenges, there were lawyers who complained the study of predicting dangerousness was barely better then phrenology.

[4] There is a simultaneous and related conversation going on regarding the use of genetics. See: Michael T. Treadway and Joshua W. Buckholtz, “On the Use and Misuse of Genomic and Neuroimaging Science in Forensic Psychiatry: Current Roles and Future Directions,” Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America 20, no. 3 (2011).

[5] Giuseppe Sartori, Silvia Pellegrini, and Andrea Mechelli, “Forensic Neurosciences: From Basic Research to Applications and Pitfalls,” Current Opinion in Neurology 24, no. 4 (2011).

For a classic argument, see: Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen, “For the Law, Neuroscience Changes Nothing and Everything,” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 359, no. 1451 (2004). Adina Roskies, “Neuroscientific Challenges to Free Will and Responsibility,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10, no. 9 (2006). and Adina L. Roskies, “How Does the Neuroscience of Decision Making Bear on Our Understanding of Moral Responsibility and Free Will?,” Current Opinion in Neurobiology, no. 0.

[6] This is called preventive detention, although there are giant exceptions: holding an accused criminal between when he is charged and when he is tried, civil commitment, certain portions of the PATRIOT act, etc. Violent sexual predators who are indefinitely committed have to have been convicted of at least one violent sexual crime.


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