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Let’s talk about “Precrime”

Last month I blogged a
little bit about constitutional protection, lie detection technology, and
wildly speculative but totally valid concerns about what happens if someone
else could tell what I was thinking. As promised, this month I’m going to
follow up with some information about “precrime”: what it is, outside of a
science-fiction context, what it could become, and what
neuroscientific knowledge contributes to the area.

I just really love the cover and wanted to plug the book, ok?
This is a wonderful book; everyone should go read it.

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
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
Prevention Unit
and sometimes called the Strategic
Anti-Violence Unit (SAV-U).

Image source:
The Doctor always knows.
(It’s a post mentioning sci-fi, crime, tv shows, and London.
I had to.)

However, in these cases, what the media are 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.
© Nevit Dilmen [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
© Nevit Dilmen

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
, autonomy,
, 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] 

Translation: it really, really messes with mens rea.

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!

Want to cite this post?

Cipolla, C. (2012). Let’s talk about “Precrime”. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
, from

[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. I also should add, at this point, if it hasn’t become
patently obvious to anyone who has read my blog posts previously or looked at
my website, I am a
Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies scholar who studies sexuality and crime.
Sexually motivated crimes and the people who commit them are, by and large,
treated differently within the United States criminal justice system than
crimes (and criminals) that are not sexually-motivated. This is particularly
true when it comes to issues like harm reduction and recidivism, both of which
factor heavily in most discussions of “precrime.”
[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

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
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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