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Parole Failure and Bad Pitching
By James Alan Fox, Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy, Northeastern University
Published: 02/28/2011

Catcher There are times when online editions of newspapers deny readers the curious juxtapositions of stories found in print, unintended though they may be, that occasionally identify fascinating ironies in politics, current events or the social world. For example, an article about on sex education in schools may inadvertently be placed side-by-side with one about the struggles of some single mother somewhere. Or, a photograph of a public servant charged with taking bribes may be coincidentally situated above a story about a newly-discover Ponzi scheme.

In today’s Sunday Globe [February 20, 2011], the print edition that is, a skillful and lengthy examination of efforts over the years to improve parole prediction tools culminates on page K4 of the Ideas section, just above a small snippet about the limitations on using minor league pitching performance to predict major league success on the mound. In both settings—predicting future criminality and future earned-run-averages—the past is a useful, but rather flawed, indicator of the future.

The most challenging problem in either case is the inherent difficulty in predicting rare events. It is a statistical fact of life that unusual or extreme outcomes can never be reliably anticipated, no matter how sophisticated the prediction device or how voluminous the data used to craft it.

Consider, for example, any effort to predict airplane crashes. While there are undoubtedly certain characteristics fairly common in airline calamities -- such as poor weather, small aircraft and an inexperienced pilot -- the vast majority of newly-licensed flyers taking off in a single-engine Cessna during a storm will land safely at their destination.

Of course, recidivism among parolees, like washout performances by rookie hurlers, is not a rare phenomenon. However, prisoners on conditional release who commit murder and top prospects who are a complete bust in the big leagues are what drive public and fan opinion. Both these extreme failures are largely unpredictable.

The other major problem to predicting parole success or pitching success is that much depends on external factors. A parolee who has the support of family and gainful employment will overcome a troubled past, just like a mediocre pitcher will be victorious if given substantial run support.

I do not mean to trivialize murder with the comparison to bad pitching. They are hardly comparable in severity or significance. Yet, the practical issues in foretelling the future in these two contexts are similar.

So before expecting too much of emerging and sophisticated tools for predicting criminality or baseball performance, we should keep in mind limitations that will can never overcome in trying to anticipate the future. Meanwhile, the public and fan base need to be more understanding when things just don’t turn out as the experts predicted.

Editor's note: Reprinted with permission - Author James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University. He is the author of the Boston.com blog "Crime and Punishment". He has written 18 books, including his newest, "Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College." He has published dozens of journal and magazine articles, and hundreds of freelance columns in newspapers around the country, primarily in the areas of multiple murder, youth crime, school and campus violence, workplace violence, and capital punishment.

Other articles by Fox:


  1. formerpo on 02/23/2011:

    Nothing in the literature regarding broad-band actuarial assessment tools suggests that they be used to predict the likelihood that a given offender will commit a given offense at some point in the future. Instead, these tools predict general recidivism within a specific time frame, which, as the author points out, is unfortunately a fairly common occurrance. Actuarial risk prediction provides practitioners with a powerful tool in determining the extent to which finite resources should be applied in a case, based on risk and need. Yes, actuarial assessment has its flaws, but in study after study, it beats the predictive accuracy of even the most expereienced human judgment. A "best practice" approach considers assessment results, other sources of information and common sense together in the decision-making process.

  2. kendwyer on 02/23/2011:

    Elegantly conveys a critical point which helps correctional workers to understand and withstand the regular, inevitable, yet disappointing casework outcomes they will encounter. At a 1994 conference in Brisbane ('Corrections in the 21st century', Griffith University, Qld, Australia) I attended a session presented by keynote speaker Professor Todd Clear on this very topic and I still recall how powerful a thing it was to gain that insight. The understanding of this topic was to me (then about to become a manager after 8 years of varied field experience) a much needed revelation which sustained and informed my later career as a community corrections manager then corrective systems analyst. I will be checking out Prof. Fox's Boston.com blog "Crime and Punishment".... Happy days!

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