anticipating wrongdoing

June 27, 2009

Those of you who remember the movie Minority Report, with Tom Cruise, are familiar with the idea of anticipating someone’s future wronging and then taking preventative action against it. It’s an interesting idea, but when it came out in 2002, it was still science fiction. Now, it seems we could be getting closer to something like that with the preliminary (unpublished) results that Vincent Clark or the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque gave a talk at the Organization for Human Brain Mapping conference.

Clark claims that he can predict which drug addicts will relapse after treatment with 89% accuracy using both traditional psychiatric techniques and fMRI brain imaging. He used 400 subjects in his decade long study. What’s interesting about this approach is that it involves a more serious level of quantitative analysis (from the fMRI) than most psychiatric evaluations and thus would be a more rigorous metric by which to measure patients against a standard.

While determining if patients in treatment will relapse (and thus might need more treatment) is a beneficial evaluation for both society and the patient, it’s not hard to extend this type of test to a more ethically difficult scenario. Suppose someone develops a test that, with 90% accuracy, determines (via MRI or some other such technique) whether a violent offender in prison will commit a repeat act of violence after paroled. I think we’re a way off (if it’s even possible) from such a test, but still, the thought experiment is interesting.

How would our criminal justice system handle such a test? Since the ostensible goal of our penitentiaries is to “reform” those who’ve done wrong, could such a test be used to determine at what point someone’s been “reformed?” How do we balance the idea of reform with the idea of penance, a similarly old but quite different justification for imprisoning someone. How much testing of such a test would we need to actually implement it, since incorrect diagnosis could lead to either additional harm to citizens or wrongful confinement. Is there any (non 100%) level of efficacy that would be acceptable?

It strikes me that implementing a test like this in our criminal justice system would force us to rework a good deal of the philosophy behind locking people up (which I don’t think would be a bad thing). It’s an interesting thought experiment now, but perhaps in a few decades it will become a reality.

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