Race, Ethnicity, and Policing: New and Essential Readings

By Stephen K. Rice; Michael D. White Roberts | Go to book overview

22

Moving Beyond Profi ling
The Virtues of Randomization

Bernard E. Harcourt

Racial profiling is best understood as a type of law enforcement technique that relies, at least in theory, on actuarial methods to target individuals and resources. The only legitimate justification for racial profiling—for the deliberate and affirmative use of race in policing—would be that the method serves as a type of statistical discrimination that more effectively and efficiently allocates law enforcement resources. Although racial profiling is never really based on scientific evidence of differential offending rates—given that it operates in a hidden manner and is generally denied —profiling can only ever be justified if there are true offending differentials between racial groups; otherwise, there is no reason whatsoever to engage in statistical discrimination.

In this sense, racial profiling simply represents one instance of a larger category of actuarial methods in policing and punishment—a larger category that now permeates the field of criminal law and its enforcement. From the use of the IRS Discriminant Index Function to predict potential tax evasion and identify which tax returns to audit, to the use of drug-courier profiles to identify suspects to search at airports, to the use of risk-assessment instruments to determine pretrial detention, length of criminal sentences, prison classification, and parole eligibility, prediction instruments increasingly determine individual outcomes in our policing, law enforcement, and punishment practices. More and more, we use risk-assessment tools to identify whom to search, when to punish more, and how to administer the penal sanction.

Most of us view this larger trend with hope rather than alarm. Many scholars, criminal justice practitioners, and public citizens embrace the turn to actuarial methods as a more efficient, rational, and wealth-maximizing tool to allocate scarce law enforcement resources.1 When it comes time to identify violent sexual predators, drug traffickers, tax cheats, or dangerous recidivists, we increasingly put our faith in actuarial instruments.2 The simple fact is, we believe that the police can detect more crime with the same resources if they investigate suspects who are at greater risk of criminal offending; and courts can reduce more crime if they incapacitate for longer periods convicted criminals who were more likely to recidivate. Most of us believe that the use of reliable actuarial methods in criminal law represents progress. No one,

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