21 February 2022

The criminal problem with algorithms

Here’s a contentious subject – what do we do with our criminals?  Do we lock ‘em up and throw away the key or should we try and rehabilitate them…?

I was impressed to learn that UK police forces, or rather Durham Constabulary, have deployed a new tool to decide if criminals should be prosecuted or offered access to a rehabilitation scheme.  This AI system has been running for five years and in that time has proved to be more successful than human custody officers.

More specifically, the Harm Assessment Risk Tool (HART) is used to rank offenders as being at low, medium or high risk of returning to crime.  HART assesses criminals’ risk of reoffending and therefore their suitability (or otherwise) for rehabilitation. It takes into account more than 30 factors, including a person's age, gender, background and history of offending.  This is clever stuff with an obvious social benefit.

HART successfully predicted that 89.8% of those who were actually brought back into custody for a serious offence within two years had been at high risk of re-offending. In comparison, human custody officers had a (still impressive) 81.2% success rate. For those predicted to be at a low risk of reoffending, HART got it right 78.8% of the time, compared to the 66.5% accuracy of the custody officers.

This is all good news.  All we have to do now is get the police to catch more criminals and then, hopefully, we will be able to identify those who will benefit from rehab and thus turn the away for a continuing life of crime.  This will not just benefit them but everyone else as well. Unfortunately, this requires the police to catch the ne’er-do-wells in the first place and seeing that Home Office figures for England and Wales (Scotland does better) show that six per cent of all crimes resulted in a charge in the year to September 2021 (this is equivalent to only one in 17 offences being solved), we have some way to go.  Perhaps what we need is a new algorithm to solve crimes…

Matt Druce, Client Delivery Director, Be-IT Projects

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