The Good the Bad of Big Data in the Criminal Justice System

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Big data has spread into nearly every aspect of life. Whether you’re an advertiser or a business owner, chances are you’ve used big data at some point to improve your work. It’s even made its way into the criminal justice system.

Police units and law firms are turning to big data to help them with various cases. But like the judicial system itself, the legal implications of big data aren’t always black and white. Broad and thorough data analysis can be a valuable tool for law enforcement, but it also raises a few ethical questions.

Improved Record Keeping

One substantial benefit of big data in criminal justice is that it’s now easier to store and access records. Thanks to things like social media, people keep far more than they used to. You may not have physical copies of old photos lying around, but you almost definitely have some on Facebook.

Defendants could post things on social media that would either convict or acquit them. With big data analytics, you wouldn’t have to spend much time finding and verifying these posts. On the internet, nothing is ever truly gone, and big data can find this information.

As more documents become digital, big data’s usefulness grows. With a larger pool to work with, big data can provide attorneys or detectives with more accurate findings.

Connecting the Dots

You’ve probably heard most people mention big data in conversations regarding analytics. Data analytic systems can make connections between data points that seem unrelated to human eyes. You don’t have to think very hard to see the legal advantage this can present.

At least 21 different American jurisdictions use an algorithm to predict how defendants will act in and after trial. The algorithm compares data about the defendant to more than 1 million past criminal cases. Courts then use these findings to make decisions about things like sentence length or bail.

Some legal systems are starting to use these big data analytics in predicting crime. Police forces throughout the U.S. now use big data-fueled predictive software to asses where crimes might occur. They can then place extra security where needed.

The Downsides to Data Dependency

While these big data applications are undoubtedly helpful, they come with a few ethical issues. First of all, automated software isn’t always reliable. In 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) found that Citigroup had been omitting vital data for 15 years because of a coding error. In criminal cases, this kind of mistake would be dire.

Data analytics as a concept isn’t prejudiced, but it relies on people who do have biases. For example, police officers are more likely to arrest African Americans, even if they aren’t convicted later. Since some algorithms take arrest records into account, they could determine African Americans present a higher risk, although that’s not true.

You could easily, yet mistakenly, assume big data is always reliable and objective. But since the society producing this data is biased, the result of this information can carry the same prejudices. If court systems look to these analytics as an objective source of truth, they could unknowingly rely on biased findings.

The Complicated World of Big Data

The world of big data can be messy, especially in legal applications. On the one hand, it presents an opportunity to streamline and improve the legal process. But on the other, it’s not always as accurate as you might think it is.

If courts rely on data analytics too much, they can end up skewing justice. But with an understanding of their inherent biases, legal systems could use these technologies to ensure people get the justice they deserve. Taking this into account, people could continue to improve the accuracy of these systems, helping everyone involved.

About the Author

Caleb Danziger writes about big data, AI, cloud computing and the IoT. Read more from Caleb on The Byte Beat, his tech blog.

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