mastrobuoni1_Beata ZawrzelNurPhoto via Getty Images_milan police software Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Do Algorithms Help to Reduce Crime?

More widespread use of predictive-policing software may eventually lead criminals to change their habits and become less consistent in their behavior. But for now, building capacity to predict individual crimes by using offenders’ habits against them appears to be a good investment.

TURIN – We all tend to follow habits at work and in other aspects of our lives. I generally work best in the morning and hate working after dinner. Our habits usually reflect preferences, learning, or a combination of the two – or, as Charles Duhigg notes in his book The Power of Habit, the mere repetition of an act might generate a routine.

My own recent research shows that criminals are not all that different from law-abiding citizens when it comes to sticking to a routine, possibly as a result of their experience, their tendency to specialize, and their belief that they have developed an ideal strategy. And police departments are catching on, with the assistance of an increasingly common tool: algorithms.

Because algorithms use patterns in data to predict future behavior, they can forecast the movies someone might like on Netflix or the books she might buy on Amazon. But they can also help law-enforcement agencies fight crime. Some algorithms calculate prison inmates’ future recidivism. Others underpin predictive-policing tools, which generate crime forecasts with the aim of optimizing patrols.