Penn Experts Test Computer Model On “Forecasting Murder”


Using fresh data from Philadelphia’s probation department, criminologist Richard Berk and University of Pennsylvania colleagues have built an innovative model for predicting which troublemakers already in the system are most likely to kill or attempt a killing, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. With the city’s homicide rate outpacing last year’s by at least 7 percent, a computer model for “forecasting murder” is in the works to be delivered to the probation department in the new year, with clinical trials of the new tool to begin in the spring.

Initial research suggests the software-based system can make it 40 times more likely for caseworkers to predict future lethality accurately than they can using current practices. The project is funded with a private grant; the product will be delivered to the city free. “This will help stratify our caseload and target our resources to the most dangerous people,” said probation department research director Ellen Kurtz said. “I don’t care as much about [targeting] the shoplifter. I care a lot about the murderer, obviously.” The tool works by plugging 30 to 40 variables into a checklist, which produces a score associated with future lethality. “You can imagine the indicators that might incline someone toward violence: youth; having committed a serious crime at an early age; being a man rather than a woman, and so on. Each, by itself, probably isn’t going to make a person pull the trigger. But put them all together and you’ve got a perfect storm of forces for violence,” Berk said.


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