Crime in the Suites An Analysis of Current Issues in White Collar Defense
May 21, 2013

What Happens When Big Data and Scientific Approach Meet Criminal Justice?

By: Jeff Ifrah

A Houston couple is giving an estimated $4 billion in the next few years to try to solve some of the nation’s social problems by the application of careful thought and statistical analysis – and the criminal justice system is one of their targets.

John and Laura Arnold have that much to give away because John, still only 39 years old, made a vast fortune as a hedge-fund trader.

As a current Wall Street Journal article entitled “The New Science of Giving” explains, the Arnolds’ approach is quite different from the plan that most mega-donors select. Rather than pick existing institutions like cancer centers, women’s shelters, or anti-hunger programs to give money to, the Arnolds want to fund new, alternative approaches to solving problems. Chief among those new approaches is the use of data analysis and science.

Among their targets is the nation’s criminal justice system, where the Arnolds want to understand not the broad constitutional principles but their application in the states on a daily basis and to try to figure out how the system can be improved. They have hired Anne Milgram, a former New Jersey attorney general, to spearhead this effort.

One aspect of the system that the Arnolds are interested in right now is how judges make their decisions to keep nonviolent pretrial defendants behind bars. There just isn’t enough science behind those decisions, the Arnolds believe, and they are spending millions of dollars to create a risk-assessment tool that judges can use to choose whether to lock people up pending trial or to return them to their families. The assessment tool benefited from data from 1.5 million cases – the sort of “big data” that has hardly ever been used in the criminal justice system to date.

We are quite interested in how this project works out and whether a data-driven approach turns out to help prosecutors and defendants. If some quantifiable benefit can be shown, it won’t be just nonviolent crime that will be affected. We’d then expect to see some application of these principles in white-collar crime sentencing and even in civil cases. It’s not clear where the dollars will come from, beyond the Arnolds’ massive infusion of cash, but there’s a significant chance that real change in the justice system may occur in the next decade or so.