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

By Bernard E. Harcourt | Go to book overview

Prologue

Actuarial methods in criminal lawn. Abbr.The actuarial.Law.The use of statistical rather
than clinical methods on large datasets to determine different levels of criminal offending as-
sociated with one or more group traits, in order (I) to predict past, present or future criminal
behavior and (2) to administer a criminal justice outcome. [From actuarial tables in the insur-
ance industry used to predict mortality rates for different groups of insured persons and to set
individual premium payments.]

Predictability is feasible,” declared Ernest W. Burgess in 1928.1The distinguished University of Chicago sociologist had just completed a study of three thousand inmates paroled in Illinois during the early 1920s and constructed one of the very first parole-prediction instruments in the United States—a twenty-one-factor test that would determine, based on group recidivism rates, the likelihood of success or failure of any inmate eligible for parole. Within a matter of years, the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet hired its first “actuary,” Ferris F. Laune—former PhD student of Burgess—and by 1935, the “Burgess method” was being used in the carceral field. Laune would compile each man's information, administer the Burgess test, and prepare a report—officially titled a prognasio—to inform the Illinois parole board of the likelihood of the inmate's success if granted parole. Laune's prognasios ushered actuarial methods into the criminal law.

By 1951, Ernest Burgess was recommending that the same actuarial paradigm be extended to many other domains of the criminal law. “Although the predictive methods described in this book are limited to parole selection,” Burgess wrote,

they are also applicable to several other fields of delinquency and criminality.
They could now be introduced, at least experimentally and for demonstration

-1-

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