Dr Alan Billings ask: “Can we predict criminal behaviour?”
You might think that it is no more possible to predict crime than the weather. You may be right about that.
On the other hand we do try to predict the weather. We want to know the forecast before we set off for a picnic on the moors without a coat.
And in a similar way, we can predict crime - up to a point.
For example, researchers in America have identified four risk factors which have proven to indicate pretty well whether a person aged 14 is likely to go on to become involved in violent crime as an adult.
Those factors are: living in a disadvantaged neighbourhood, having poor job prospects, having a very young mother, and having an unemployed young mother.
The chances of a young person being involved in violent crime increases as the number of factors increases. Someone with all four is very likely to be caught up in violence.
I would expect similar results in this country.
This is not to say, of course, that everyone who has all or any of the above factors will turn out to be criminal eventually.
Nor does it mean that someone who grew up in a relatively prosperous area with the support of an older working mother could never get involved in violent crimes.
It’s all about likelihood and probability – just as the weather forecaster will say there is an 80 per cent chance of rain today, but could be wrong.
Nevertheless, it gives us something to go on.
The question is, what do we do next?
The police can hardly arrest people on the grounds that, given the risk factors in their lives, there is a strong possibility that these people will be involved in serious crime sooner or later.
After all, you can’t arrest people for what they might do, only for what they have done.
What this predictive analysis is making us do is think about what other measures can be taken before the police are involved and before any crimes are committed.
Can we do something about deprived neighbourhoods? Can we do more to help young people find meaningful work, especially if their aspirations are low and their qualifications poor?
Can we get support for young mothers, especially where they are not working?
These are not police matters. But the police have an interest in society getting them right. As we get better and better at predicting, we have a chance to stop crime and criminality before it starts. This has to be better for everyone.