Here at Hogwarts - I mean Penn - Professor Trelawney's class in Divination has come to life. Suddenly, we are sorcerers, and crystal balls have the power to predict the future and ward off approaching danger. We may not be able to trap Voldemort, but mere Muggle murderers stand no chance against the prowess of Philadelphia.
Now that's wishful thinking.
As the Penn community struggles to protect its students from a sexual assaulter and a screwdriver-bearing robber, safety remains one of our primary concerns on campus. I'm certain our parents would breathe a lot easier if Philadelphia homicide levels significantly decreased. Quite admirably, two of our very own professors have been personally working to accomplish just that.
This coming spring, the city probation department will begin to implement a type of modeling software that estimates the likelihood that a probationer will become a murderer. One of the scholars involved in the program's development is Richard Berk, a Criminology professor at Penn. Approached by Philadelphia officials, both he and Penn professor Lawrence Sherman have been leading the project's development since April 2006.
According to Berk, the ultimate purpose of the software is "to forecast which individuals on probation are most likely to try to kill someone, whether they succeed or not."
Performing a trial run of their model, the group entered two years worth of data into the program, including probation cases from the years 2002 to 2004. Berk defended this seemingly arbitrary time frame, by explaining, "A large fraction of the people on probation who are going to try to kill someone will do so within two years after they start probation." Statistically, he continued, "About one person in a one hundred on probation will try to kill someone within two years."
Interestingly, Berk explained that "there is no checklist for the Philadelphia study," and "the variables come from records that the Probation Department keeps on each probationer."
According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, some of these traits might include gender, age and long-term criminal history.
Yet if we can't establish a reliable list of common variables, then we may face difficulties using the software effectively among a diverse, citywide group of suspects. Also, because the probationers don't necessarily share any of the same traits, there is no standard of comparison among multiple individuals' models.
"We are currently working on forecasting other kinds of criminal activity committed by individuals on probation," Berk said. "And most important, we are also trying to forecast the probationers who are very low risk so that supervisory resources can be shifted from them to the high-risk probationers."
Berk believes that by focusing our efforts on these individuals, we may be able to reduce the amount of crime in both the Penn area and the entire city of Philadelphia.
It's difficult to believe that this idealistic equipment will actually be effective anytime in the near future. Essentially, the project seems to be an attempt to engineer a crystal ball - a mortally impossible feat. Even if the program identified a suspect as a likely murderer, we must remember that a positive result does not necessarily indicate guilt - and most likely, it does not.
"For many of the models we tried, you get about 10 false positives for every true positive," Berk said. "We can reduce this ratio, but doing so would increase false negatives, which present an even bigger problem - murderers on the loose.
Right now, the 10-to-1 ratio is the most viable option, and according to Berk, "the high risk probationers we find who do not try to kill someone are often involved in other serious crimes."
However, we must proceed with caution and remember that this modeling process by no means guarantees accuracy. Perhaps there truly is no clear-cut formula to determine a person's homicidal tendencies, because the motivations behind such horrific actions are often not so black-and-white.
I'm certainly grateful for anything that improves our safety. Unfortunately, however, this new innovation in computer software just isn't going to significantly improve our currently frightening crime levels. Yet catching one murderer out of a slew of probationers is better than catching none, and perhaps for now, we should just be satisfied with our mortal limitations.
And after all, predicting the future didn't work too well in Minority Report.
Sharon Udasin is a College senior from East Brunswick, N.J. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Shed a Little Light appears on Mondays.Comments powered by Disqus
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