criminal justice

“Against Prediction”


Ernest Burgess formulated a 21 factor test in the 1920’s whose aim was to predict the success or failure of inmates’ paroles. Years later, this method, that spear-headed the use of actuarial method in criminal justice was adopted specifically to decide on parole and was known as the “Burgess method”. Over the years, confidence in the use of the actuarial method in criminal justice in both predicting crime and overseeing a criminal justice result has continued to grow.

Arguments against actuarial method

Efficiency Argument. Over-reliance on actuarial methods in criminal law is unwarranted. This argument can be supported from three main fronts. First and foremost, the sole purpose of law enforcement is to lessen crime. Dependence on actuarial methods to predict future criminality however, goes against this intention. This can be accredited to the fact that profiling based on past, current and upcoming offenses could actually lead to higher crime rates among the members of a given un-profiled group as compared to those persons from groups that have been profiled.

Based on the assumptions of rational action theory, it has been argued that criminal profiling actually decreases the rate at which the members from a high offending group commit crime and increases the efficacy of police detecting and apprehending criminal offenders. Profiling however does not cut the crime rates as assumed because in reality it enhances crime among the non-profiled groups because different groups have different elasticity. On the part of sentencing, use of actuarial method may generally also add to crime.

Selective Incapacitation Argument. Secondly, this dependability upon the actuarial technique of prediction in criminal law leads to an imbalance in the population because individuals from the profiled groups are more as compared to individuals from groups that have not been profiled in matters of criminal justice and punishment.  The resultant social implications of such records to the persons from the profiled group are far-reaching and include hitches in getting employment, education prospects or even enjoying the pleasures of ordinary family lives.

The actuarial kind of method leads to predictions which create a “ratchet effect.” This ratchet effect which operates under the principle of selective incapacitation is inconsistent with rational behavior and unjustifiable by rational choice theory. Another fault in the ratchet effect is the people’s over-reliance on unreliable data from biased samples.

The Measurement Critique. Thirdly, due to an escalation in the use of actuarial methods, our understanding of just punishment has started getting distorted. The actuarial method has incorporated unreliable principles from other disciplines’ technical knowledge which ultimately impact on our legal system and its modes of punishing offenders. This is unacceptable.

Over-reliance on predictions deeply alters societies’ understanding of just punishment. We need to understand that the criminal mind can’t be fully understood through the use of skewed predictions arrived at via biased sampling methods.

In conclusion, as opposed to the actuarial method, random sampling should be adopted as the more natural and intuitive option as it is representative of the actual offending population sex, social class or race notwithstanding. It is not informed by any future predictions and therefore evades the risk involved in actuarial method where there is an increase in the amount of crime. Randomization also leads to fair sentencing because it is free of any bias that may arise from future predictions as is the case with the actuarial technique.


An adoption of the actuarial method in matters of criminal law is faulty based on three arguments. Firstly, basing judgments of sentencing based on predictions and profiling does not lead to reduced crime rates but on the contrary, escalate the crime rate. Secondly, the ratchet effect which operates under the principle of selective incapacitation doesn’t reduce the rate of crime as assumed. Thirdly, our over dependence on the actuarial method has led to a misconception of just punishment. Random sampling should be employed as the more reliable method when it comes to criminal justice and punishment. This goes to show that actuarial methods used towards predictability developed by Ernest in 1928 may not alleviate the criminal problem. This can be related to failure in the prognasio, which is a tool used to determine predictability of a criminal to be granted parole. This tool may fail and grant the most hardened criminals a chance to get paroled this only makes the situation worse since these criminal elements get out to mingle with the society. The likelihood of this criminal going back to their old lifestyles is very high, since they may have worked around the system to get out fulfilling some criminal intents or activities.

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