By Meade, Eric
The Futurist , Vol. 44, No. 4
To understand the potential futures of crime and justice, one must explore a full range of issues, the connection of which to law enforcement may at first seem tangential at best. Our perspectives and behaviors relative to crime and justice are informed by larger changes taking place around us--socially, technologically, environmentally, economically, and politically. Scanning the horizon for trends and developments that may influence the future of crime and justice informs our strategies to create the future we prefer. This exercise also highlights how futures methods can yield insights into the decisions we must make today.
The trend analysis below, focusing specifically on the United States, provides a base for understanding the forces that may affect law enforcement in the future. This will enable us to better forecast probable outcomes--and envision preferable futures for society.
Social and Demographic Trends
There are several important demographic changes that will affect the United States over the next decade. Most strikingly, non-Hispanic whites will continue to shrink as a percentage of the U.S. population, from 65% in 2010 to 61% in 2020 and 50% in 2050. During this time, Hispanics will make the greatest gains, reaching 24% of the population by 2050.
The increased attention paid to the Hispanic community may marginalize vulnerable African American populations, who will hold steady at approximately 13% of the total U.S. population. At the same time, marriage across racial and ethnic groups may reduce the extent to which Americans identify themselves with one racial or ethnic group.
Another key demographic factor is the generational shift now taking place as the millennial generation replaces the "silent" and baby-boomer generations before them in the workforce, electorate, and public. Similarly, the juvenile age bracket will soon be made up of "Globals" (born 2004-?), about whom little has yet been written and whose attitudes toward crime and justice are more difficult to anticipate.
Millennials tend to be more engaged in civic activities than other generational cohorts and are more likely to think that the government is on their side. This attitude suggests that they may accept law enforcement techniques and technologies that earlier generations perceived as violations of privacy. The millennials' relatively high adoption of new technologies and low sensitivity to privacy concerns can already be seen on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, where young people regularly post detailed information about their private lives. This divergence from the values and behaviors of previous generations will also become significant to law enforcement agencies as more millennials enter their ranks.
Another value shift that is occurring in U.S. society is attitudes toward low-level drug use. Many Americans have come to view use of some addictive substances more as a health problem than as a criminal-justice problem.
Science and Technology Trends
The emergence of new technologies will doubtless lead to new forms of crime. For example, expanded reliance on Internet technology has already created new forms of identity theft, identity distortion, and online extortion. The growth of virtual reality and online communities may extend crime from person to "avatar"--the character that represents the user or acts as the user's agent in virtual reality. For example, in 2008 a Japanese woman was arrested for killing off the avatar of her virtual ex-husband--that is, she illegally logged in as him and destroyed his character. As virtual worlds play a larger role in our personal and economic lives, it is likely that these crimes will grow in importance.
Back in the real world, new types of crime will emerge as we spend more of our lives online. Violent outbursts that occur in chat rooms or e-mails may be viewed as "cyberhate crimes. …