Economist – Big Data Helps with Prison Breakthrough

Picture of the Economist Logo

The power of Big Data is leading to fascinating developments in improving our society – as reported by the Economist.  What if Big Data could help “cut the cost of incarceration without endangering the public”?  Clearly, safeguarding our democracy rests on safeguarding our neighborhoods, but what if we could leverage insights from Big Data to supplement the decision-making ability of parole boards to more effectively manage the prison population?

On April 19, 2014, he Economist featured an insightful article on how Big Data helps with providing essential intelligence that can  assist each state’s ability to decide which prisoners to release.

According to the New York Times, in an article entitled ‘In the U.S. Punishment Comes Before the Crimes’, the USA spent about “$80 billion on its systems of jails and prisons in 2010 – about $260 for ever resident of the nation”.  By comparison, the USA spends about $227 per person for food stamps, reports the NY Times.

Big Data Assists with Smarter Decision-Making for Parolees

As one way to reduce our nation’s costs, the Economist captures how Big Data is assisting with smarter decision making in paroling low risk prisoners.  The article, entitled ‘Prison Breakthrough’ notes that “parole boards may be biased, perhaps without realizing it.  In general, they tend to overestimate the likelihood that a prisoner will re-offend”.

Big Data Risk Assessment Software Predicts Likelihood a Prisoner Will Re-Offend

With the advent of Big Data, risk assessment software has been developed that “crunches data to estimate the likelihood a prisoner will re-offend”, and has the beneficial consequences of “increasing the proportion of applicants who are granted parole while also reducing the proportion who re-offend”.

In a nutshell, the software (LSI-R and LS/CMI – developed by Multi-Health Systems), factors in data from “the prisoner’s age at first arrest, his education, the nature of his crime, his behavior in prison, his friend’s criminal records, the results of psychometric tests, the sobriety of his mother while he was in the womb” and compares the probability of relapse to the profile of many other prisoners.  Interestingly, the article notes that  “low-risk criminals whose likelihood of reoffending actually increases the longer they are locked up alongside violet criminals”.

Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?

The New York Times references a book by Steven Raphael of the University of California, Berkely and Michael Stoll of UCLA, ‘Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?’ that postulates ‘ “what drove up imprisonment rates was not crime but policy”.

Picture of Book - Why are So Many Americans in Prison

The article notes that mandatory sentencing guidelines evolved with frustration in rehabilitating prisoners – rightfully so, in the sense that safeguarding our democracy rests on safeguarding our neighborhoods.

So the thinking behind mandatory sentencing guidelines could be summarized by noting that “if rehabilitation was out of reach”, “all that was left was to remove criminals from society” “through harsh sentencing” to “deter future crime”.  “From 1975 through 2002, all 50 states adopted mandatory sentencing laws, specifying minimum sentences”, “and the prison populations surged”, notes journalist Eduardo Porto.  Moreover he notes that 40 years ago, “less than .2 percent of the American population was in a correctional institution.”  By 2012, he notes that “the share of Americans behind bars of one sort or another had more than tripled to .7 percent”.

What If?

What if the United States could save money through smarter decision-making by deciding whom to release from prison based on the probability that they would not be a danger to society going forward?  What else can Big Data do?

To read the full article on the Economist web site, click here.  To read the article from the New York Times on ‘In the U.S. Punishment Comes Before The Crimes’, click here.

By Nick Mavrick

You can find Nick Mavrick on Google+

Intelligent Response specializes in managing and securing Strategic Marketing and Digital Advocacy projects from start to finish in Washington DC

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