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Against Prediction

Profiling, Policing, and Punishing in an Actuarial Age

From random security checks at airports to the use of risk assessment in sentencing, actuarial methods are being used more than ever to determine whom law enforcement officials target and punish. And with the exception of racial profiling on our highways and streets, most people favor these methods because they believe they’re a more cost-effective way to fight crime.

In Against Prediction, Bernard E. Harcourt challenges this growing reliance on actuarial methods. These prediction tools, he demonstrates, may in fact increase the overall amount of crime in society, depending on the relative responsiveness of the profiled populations to heightened security. They may also aggravate the difficulties that minorities already have obtaining work, education, and a better quality of life—thus perpetuating the pattern of criminal behavior. Ultimately, Harcourt shows how the perceived success of actuarial methods has begun to distort our very conception of just punishment and to obscure alternate visions of social order. In place of the actuarial, he proposes instead a turn to randomization in punishment and policing. The presumption, Harcourt concludes, should be against prediction.

264 pages | 2 halftones, 18 line drawings, 13 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2006


Law and Legal Studies: General Legal Studies, Law and Economics

Political Science: Political Behavior and Public Opinion, Public Policy

Sociology: Individual, State and Society


"Bernard Harcourt has never had an uninteresting thought, or made an argument that does not provoke or engage or delight or enlighten--or do all of those things simultaneously."

Malcolm Gladwell

"This is a creative, provocative, well-researched argument against current practice in sentencing, parole discrimination, and investigative profiling. Harcourt makes the case that a century of social science-inspired thinking about punishment and profiling should be cast out in favor of randomness. It is a position that will be dismissed by many as politically impractical, if not absurd. But that is often the immediate fate of revolutionary ideas."

Jack Katz, University of California, Los Angeles

"In Against Prediction, Bernard Harcourt stresses that while the benefits of actuarial predictions have been widely touted, certain costs have been largely overlooked. Indeed, actuarial prediction can under some circumstances actually increase crime, and generate morally problematic social wounds on the profiled classes that might outweigh the benefits even if crime is reduced. Once again, Harcourt has challenged the conventional wisdom in criminal justice policy, and offered an indictment to the practice of actuarial prediction that policymakers, scholars and concerned citizens will have to fully consider."

John J. Donohue III, Leighton Homer Surbeck Professor of Law, Yale Law School

"As debate on profiling and terrorism grows sharper. . . . Harcourt’s book will remain essential reading for those who wish to look past the chestnuts of stale debate on crime and policing, and to see with fresh eyes the problems of the criminal law."

Aziz Huq | New York Law Journal

"Harcourt welds normative and analytic arguments about risks and actuarial approaches to policing and criminal justice in a novel and readable fashion. This deserves a wide hearing among scholars and students interested in risk, actuaruarial logic and new modes of governance through crime control."

Kevin Stenson | Surveillance and Society

"Those whose focus is on behavioral and attitudinal studies should read this book. Why? It is counterintuitive. It offers challenging assumptions. It raises questions about social discrimination."

David S. Mann | Law and Politics Book Review

"The book is an excellent and convincing treatise against assuming that an individual’s actions are predicted by group behavior. . . . Against Prediction convincingly argues that the use of economic actuarial methods--predicting individual criminal likelihood based on the quantifiable characteristics of groups to which one belongs--is fundamentally flawed. . . . That we fail to see the harms of prediction, and that we proudly aspire to some quixotic goal of corrective ’efficiency’ is to our collective shame as much as Against Prediction is to Harcourt’s credit."

Peter Moskos | American Journal of Sociology

"[These] arguments should be studied by anyone who is considering  advocating, or utilizing, formal predictive methods in the domain of law enforcement."

David Canter | Howard Journal

"Against Prediction is inspiring in its breadth of erudition, from mathematics to philosophy, sociology, and history, and persuasive in its impassioned and provocative argument. . . . If we want to break the hold that racialist thinking has on criminal law, there is no better place to begin than the apparently neutral actuarialism of the new penology."

Ariela Gross | Law & Social Inquiry

"[Harcourt] has produced a book of such exceptional quality that this reviewer can only describe his offering as not only a welcome breath of fresh air on profiling, but urgent, required reading for all students of criminology, criminal justice, and, of course, profiling in all its forms. . . . . . . . This is scholarly analysis of the bases of actuarial criminal profiling at its very best and is an outstanding book. A new benchmark in the field."

John Horgan | Review of Policy Research

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Actuarial Methods in the Criminal Law
Part I. The Rise of the Actuarial Paradigm
Chapter 2. Ernest W. Burgess and Parole Prediction
Chapter 3. The Proliferation of Actuarial Methods in Punishing and Policing
Part II. The Critique of Actuarial Methods
Chapter 4. The Mathematics of Actuarial Prediction: The Illusion of Efficiency
Chapter 5. The Ratchet Effect: An Overlooked Social Cost
Chapter 6. The Pull of Prediction: Distorting Our Conceptions of Just Punishment
Part III. Toward a More General Theory of Punishing and Policing
Chapter 7. A Case Study on Racial Profiling
Chapter 8. Shades of Gray
Chapter 9. The Virtues of Randomization
Appendix A: Retracing the Parole-Prediction Debate and Literature
Appendix B: Mathematical Proofs Regarding the Economic Model of Racial Profiling


The University of Chicago Press: Gordon J. Laing Award

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