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

By Bernard E. Harcourt | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
The Ratchet Effect:
An Overlooked Social Cost

The use of actuarial methods does not withstand scrutiny on rationaltheory grounds. Profiling may actually encourage, rather than deter, the overall commission of the targeted crime. But deterrence, naturally, is not the only argument for using instruments that predict criminality. A second and equally powerful argument relies on the incapacitative effect of group prediction: actuarial methods will increase the success rate of searches, audits, parole decision making, and other criminal justice decisions, and therefore enhance our ability to incarcerate criminal offenders. Put simply, if we search more high-offending motorists, we will detect more contraband; and if we deny parole to more likely recidivists, we will prevent them from reoffending. The use of actuarial measures will mean more tax evaders paying their fair share of national expenses, more drug traffickers behind bars, and more recidivists locked up in prison.

As noted in the introduction, the incapacitation argument is compelling, especially in light of the radical drop in crime experienced throughout the United States during the 1990s and 2000s. Many sociologists and economists attribute the sharp drop in crime—or at least, a significant portion of that drop—to the increase in the number of prison inmates in this country. Steven Levitt's research demonstrates that the massive investment in prisons contributed to the drop in crime:1the best evidence suggests that almost a fourth of the crime drop during the 1990s was attributable to prison expansion.2

In evaluating the argument from incapacitation, however, it is crucial to distinguish our recent experience with prison growth from the more ordinary amount of incapacitation that can be achieved by shifting fixed

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