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Against prediction, against convention
By Sarah Etter, News Reporter
Published: 04/09/2007

0409tie Bernard Harcourt is something of a research rebel. Currently working as the director of the Center for Studies in Criminal Justice at the University of Chicago, and with three books under his belt, Harcourt has made a name for himself with his unconventional approach to criminal justice studies. His latest offering, Against Prediction: Profiling, Policing and Punishing in an Actuarial Age, is certainly his most controversial.

“More and more, we use risk-assessment tools to identify whom to search, when to punish more and how to administer the penal sanction,” Harcourt begins in his book. “Most of us view this trend with hope, rather than alarm…In this book, I challenge this commonsense view and set forth three compelling reasons why we should be skeptical of – rather than embrace – the new actuarial paradigm.”

Against Prediction examines the statistical methods used to predict the possibility of someone turning to criminal activity, and finds that they come up short.

“What ultimately surprised me was the counterintuitive nature of my findings, specifically two of them” Harcourt explains. “One was that profiling actually causes more crime. That is completely counterintuitive. No one thinks that profiling causes more crime. That kind of blindsided me. But it makes total sense when you think through and model it. It makes sense that if the people you are targeting are not responsive to policing, but the people you aren't targeting are, you'll get a lot more crime from those who aren't being targeted.”

He says another finding that surprised him was the idea of random policing in order gain a fair representation of who is really committing crimes.

“If you were to say to yourself ‘This group of tall people commit 45 percent of all crimes, so let's put 45 percent of our police onto patrolling that population,' that seems right. That's deploying a police force proportionally. But what you get is a hugely disproportionate number of tall people arrested,” he adds. You are going to get even more tall people arrested. The ultimate catch will be higher.”

Harcourt advocates random policing, rather than relying on statistics and profiling, even though many are wary of random policing because it seems too haphazard to work. He says that while random policing may seem inefficient initially, his research suggests otherwise.

He also has some controversial theories when it comes to racial profiling.

“9/11 changed things. Now, the idea that you wouldn't profile young Muslim men is almost treasonous in this country. My work has triggered more of a response along the terrorism profiling front than along the general criminal profiling front. That's an artifact of the time we live in now,” Harcourt says. “But the argument is the same.”

Critics of his book rebuff his suggestion of randomness, though, especially at airports. Others have written the author saying they still don't believe his research or accompanying graphs. Regardless, Harcourt says that a thorough review of his work will prove that what police and security agents have been relying on for years is far from perfect.

“You have to spend time with the graphs and follow the argument and the notion of comparative elasticity, and really thorough review the existing research,” he adds. “I think it really helps to spend a little bit of time thinking about the process. In part, I think [my research] is so counterintuitive, so you're butting up against a lot of intuitions.”

Related Resources:

About Bernard Harcourt

Books by Harcourt

Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing

Against Prediction: Profiling, Policing and Punishing in an Actuarial Age



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