Tag Archives: crime

Can coronavirus layoffs lead to an increase in crime?

As countries seek to contain it, the coronavirus outbreak is already showing its first effects on the economy, with businesses cutting jobs amid lower demand for several goods and services.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Norway plans to lay off up to 50% of its employees in all areas because of a decline in flights, while the Port of Los Angeles already fired 145 drivers and South by Southwest would lay off a third of its full-time employees — just to name a few.

An increase in the number of people being laid off is not only stressful for many families but can also lead to a growth in criminal activity, according to a recent study, the first one to link the two phenomena.

“Layoffs lead to an increase of criminal charges against displaced workers, while also decreasing their future earnings and full-time opportunities,” Mark Votruba, co-author of the study said.

Trying to understand the link between job losses and criminal activity, Vortuba said a key element was the drastic effect that layoffs have on daily schedules. The rate of crime, both violent and drug and alcohol-related, were much higher during the week than on the weekend, the study showed.

A laid-off worker has incentives to shift the use of time toward illicit earnings opportunities since displacements reduce legal earnings opportunities. At the same time, dismissals lessen the opportunity cost of a worker’s time during the period of unemployment.

“The old adage that idle hands are the devil’s workshop appears to have some truth to it,” said Votruba. “This unfortunate link (to weekday crimes) highlights the importance of psychological factors–such as mental distress, self-control, financial concerns and frustration–in determining counterproductive behavior.”

The findings were obtained by looking at data from over one million laid-off Norwegian workers, 84.000 of which experienced an involuntary job loss. The study found a 60% increase in property crime charges in the year after a downsizing and an overall 20% increase in criminal-charge rates in the year after a layoff.

The researchers said there are no records linking criminal and employment activity in the US. But they claimed there are reasons to believe that the effects of layoffs would be stronger than in Norway due to differences in society.

“Norway has a strong social safety net that makes job loss less painful there than in the US. Both the income and psychological effects of job loss are likely more severe in the US,” said Votruba, a research associate at Statistics Norway during the study.

The study could help policymakers better understand the link between job loss and crime, and consequently work on policies to reduce the costs that layoffs represent of the society. For Votruba, this could mean programs to discourage alcohol and drug abuse among displaced workers.

The study was published in Labour Economics.

Excitement, not profit, drives young burglars to crime

Young burglars are driven more by excitement than anything else when committing their first crimes, a new study finds.

Image via Pixabay.

The authors wanted to highlight the role emotions, namely positive emotions such as excitement, play in the initial decision to commit a crime. This initial decision is very important, they explain, as the experience they gain until the rush fades off makes it more likely that individuals will turn to habitual offending.

Do it for the vine

“It’s important to understand under what circumstances young people make that initial decision to commit a crime, so we can think about intervention,” says Dr. Claire Nee, Reader in Forensic Psychology, who led the study.

“The role of emotion in driving the desire to commit crime is a much neglected area and our research indicates it could be key to stopping it in its tracks. The excitement drives the initial spate of offending, but skill and financial reward quickly take over resulting in habitual offending.”

The team worked with a group of young burglars (average age 20) and an older, more experienced group of residential burglars (average age 39). The participants were asked to carry out a virtual burglary, a simulated environment in which they had to pick and break into a property. The team asked them to ‘think aloud’ during the exercise, and later interviewed each participant on his decision-making process and actions. They were also asked about their experiences in the days or hours before their real-life burglary to see what process led them to commit the crime.

The team found that nobody was actually intent on being a burglar; the participants simply drifted to the ‘profession’, they didn’t rush headlong for it. Yet, offending was often considered an integral and almost inevitable part of participants’ lifestyles. One young burglar said that “where [he’s] from, that’s what it’s like, it’s crime, like, that’s the norm.” An older burglar also recounted that he “was just born on the streets” and “that’s what people do [on the streets]”.

“What really struck me about the research is how young offenders can’t identify a clear initial decision to commit a burglary — it’s just part of the ‘flow’ of what they’re doing with their adolescent comrades,” says Dr. Nee.

The authors say that their results suggest that the initial burglaries are linked with the desire for excitement; it’s a thrill the first couple of times, they explain, but this fades away with repeated offenses. After this point, the participants were more motivated by the prospect of making quick, easy money; one participant recalls “thinking, wow, is this what 10 minutes of work is?” after a burglary.

Better knowing how people turn to crime and what motivates them at various stages can help us design better intervention procedures to prevent or cut short a career in crime.

The paper “Expertise, Emotion and Specialization in the Development of Persistent Burglary” has been published in The British Journal of Criminology.

Air pollution can increase violent crime rates, study finds

Air pollution is considered a severe health problem across the globe, causing millions of deaths every year due to exposure to a mix of particles and gases. But breathing dirty air doesn’t only make you sick but also more aggressive, according to research.

A set of studies by researchers at Colorado State University found strong links between short-term exposure to air pollution and aggressive behavior, in the form of aggravated assaults and other violent crimes across the continental United States.

The team cross-analyzed three highly detailed datasets: daily criminal activity from the National Incident-Based Reporting System managed by the FBI; daily, county-level air pollution from 2006-2013 collected by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitors; and daily data on wildfire smoke plumes from satellite imagery.

Rates of pollution are usually measured through concentrations of ozone, as well as of “PM2.5,” or breathable particulate matter 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller, which has documented associations with health effects.

The research showed a 10 microgram-per-cubic-meter increase in same-day exposure to PM2.5 is associated with a 1.4% increase in violent crimes, nearly all of which is driven by crimes categorized as assaults. Researchers also found that a 0.01 parts-per-million increase in same-day exposure to ozone is associated with a 0.97% increase in violent crime or a 1.15% increase in assaults.

“We’re talking about crimes that might not even be physical – you can assault someone verbally,” co-author Jude Bayham said. “The story is, when you’re exposed to more pollution, you become marginally more aggressive, so those altercations – some things that may not have escalated – do escalate.”

The researchers made no claims on the physiological, mechanistic relationship of how exposure to pollution leads someone to become more aggressive. The results only show a strong correlative relationship between such crimes and levels of air pollution, not looking at other possible explanations.

“The results are fascinating, and also scary,” Jeff Pierce said. “When you have more air pollution, this specific type of crime, domestic violent crime in particular, increases quite significantly.”

Air pollution

The combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about 7 million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections.

More than 80% of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to air quality levels that exceed the World Health Organization guideline level of 10µg/m3, with low- and middle-income countries suffering from the highest exposures.

The major outdoor pollution sources include vehicles, power generation, building heating systems, agriculture/waste incineration and industry. In addition, more than 3 billion people worldwide rely on polluting technologies and fuels (including biomass, coal, and kerosene) for household cooking, heating and lighting, releasing smoke into the home and leaching pollutants outdoors.

Statue tied.

Prison doesn’t work, according to a new study

A team of U.S. researchers says incarcerating those who commit serious crimes doesn’t stop them from doing so again after release.

Statue tied.

Image via Pixabay.

When we were little, we could get sent to our rooms or put on a time-out for more serious misbehaving. I find a certain humorous irony that, as adults, we tend to apply the same ‘fix’ to those guilty of committing serious crimes. I understand the reasoning behind this line of thinking, but the parallel is, nevertheless, funny to me.

However, just like getting sent to your room didn’t really guarantee you wouldn’t misbehave later on, prison doesn’t deter inmates from committing more crimes after they’re released, a new paper reports.

Doin’ my time

“The unadjusted probabilities of both arrest and conviction for a violent crime were higher among those sentenced to prison compared with probation,” the paper reads.

“It is unclear whether these unadjusted outcomes reflect causal effects of imprisonment itself or systematic unobserved differences between those sentenced to prison versus probation in underlying propensity to engage in violence, thus motivating our use of the natural experiment based on [a random assignment of judges to criminal cases].”

The team, which included researchers from the University of California, the University of Michigan, Kaiser Permanente Colorado Institute for Health Research, the State University of New York, and the University of Colorado School of Medicine, used statistical methods to analyze the behavior of Michigan inmates. The study focused on those incarcerated for committing violent crimes, looking at their behavior in prison and after being released.

What the team wanted to see is how likely inmates were to re-engage in criminal behavior after their release from prison. The study drew on data from over 110,000 people who were convicted of violence-related felonies between 2003 and 2006 in Michigan. Some of them were sentenced to time in prison, while others were given probation. The team then followed the progress of each of these individuals through to the year 2015, looking for arrests, incarcerations, and other brushes with the wrong side of the law.

Initially, the team reports, incarceration does seem to work: they found a slight decrease in crime rates for those sent to prison compared to those who were put on probation. However, the obvious needs pointing out here — it’s much harder to commit crime in prison even if you desperately wanted to. This was also highlighted by what they did after serving their time. After release, past inmates were just as likely as those placed on probation to engage in criminal activity. In other words, prison doesn’t turn criminals to the one true path. Who would have thought?

“People sentenced to prison were more likely to be subject to secondary [incarceration], meaning that they were at greater risk than people sentenced to probation of being sent to prison later due to technical violations of parole or probation,” the paper adds.

“We found that being sentenced to prison increased the probability of future imprisonment within 5 years by almost 20 percentage points among people with a nonviolent offence.”

Incarceration is probably one of the oldest forms of punishment we humans have ever implemented, and in certain respects, it’s certainly effective. If your goal is to stop (or at least severely impede) somebody from committing more crime, locking them up under guard is definitely going to do the trick.

But, we also tend to run this social narrative that prison is meant to teach people a lesson, and I have a problem with that. The thinking, I assume, goes that all that time spent behind bars will give inmates a chance to think about what they did, and why they shouldn’t do so again after being released. In my eyes, that line has a big, gaping, glaring flaw — the inmates know what they did; they were there. They’re not 5, unable to grasp the consequences of their actions so no amount of time-out will help.

I like to think that people naturally want to fit into the group (society) and follow its rules, because that’s the kind of hairless ape we are. I don’t think criminals are ‘born bad’ or that crime wells out of a desire to do evil; personally, I think it’s mostly a product of our environment and the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Sure, some people will resort to crime to get ahead, but those are rarely violent crimes — money laundering, fraud, environmental crime, tax evasion are much more profitable and clean. But, I think that average people resort to crime when they aren’t able, allowed, or taught how to operate within the boundaries that society deems as ‘right‘ and/or ‘legal’. Living in an Eastern European country struggling with illiberalism and government corruption has helped shape that idea in my head, and some studies do support my view.

But whether you think that prison is moralizing or not is not what this study aimed to find out. The team wanted to see if prison is effective and the data seems to indicate that it is not — at least, not any more effective than probation. The authors themselves note that imprisonment just isn’t an effective deterrent to crime and that prison is a lot more expensive than probation. If that’s the case, shouldn’t we take a look at whether prisons should be around any longer? It’s not cheap to hold an inmate in captivity, and according to these findings, it doesn’t benefit either the prisoners themselves or society at large.

Even worse, prisons are a very unsavory environment, and they actually breed and harden criminals. Wouldn’t our money be better spent on something that benefits at least one, if not both, of the parties involved? Norway and the Netherlands, for example, have enjoyed such success with rehabilitation programs that they’re actually closing down traditional jails for lack of criminals. Maybe we should try to emulate them more.

The paper “A natural experiment study of the effects of imprisonment on violence in the community” has been published in the journal Nature.

Weather and crime: is there a connection?

Credit: Pixabay.

Some of the most interesting and informative aspects of criminal investigations are the motives and social or environmental conditions that contributed to specific criminal acts. From substance use to socioeconomic background and exposure to violent media, experts have attempted to understand the factors that make particular types of crimes more likely or that correlate to an increased overall crime rate. Studies in this area have made it clear that the circumstances that promote violence and crime are just as complex as the motivations of the perpetrators.

Recent research has tied a rise in crime rates to an environmental factor: the weather. Between extended cold spells to blistering summer heat, temperature and weather conditions have taken the blame for increased criminal activity in many different news stories covering a range of locations. In many cases, law enforcement officers and others seem convinced that atmospheric factors play a role in crime rates, but does the evidence actually show a correlation between weather and crime?


Fortunately, multiple studies have been completed to determine whether there is any truth to the claims that weather conditions in either extreme contribute to an increased likelihood of criminal activity. These studies have provided important insights into the ways that temperature influence the frequency of certain crimes.


Tracking ambient temperature and crime rates, a Finland study used nearly two decades of data to identify a possible connection between them. Researchers found that temperature changes were responsible for 10 percent of fluctuations in the nation’s crime rates — a 1.7 percent increase in criminal activity for each degree centigrade rise in the temperature. More specifically, the study found that increased serotonin levels resulting from high temperature likely contributed to increased impulsivity and a higher risk of crimes.

A recent comparison of crime and temperature data across ten major U.S. cities echoed the findings of the Finland study. Looking only at the number of shootings, the investigation found that as temperatures rose, so did the number of shooting victims in nine out of the ten cities (the outlier, San Francisco, has weather patterns that are notably more moderate). Additional details provided by the city of Philadelphia reveal that the crime increase comes solely from outdoor incidents – the number of indoor shootings stayed the same despite dramatic changes in temperature.


Another major American city, Chicago, provides further insights into the impact of weather and temperature on crime rates. Police crime data from the City of Chicago Data Portal indicates that within the annual summer crime peak, certain types of crime appear more weather-dependent. Out of seven major crime categories, theft, along with shootings and other battery, saw the greatest increase as temperatures rose, with nine additional incidents for every 10-degree temperature increase.

Other categories of crime are correlated to a lesser extent, including criminal damage (five more incidents per 10-degree increase) and assault (three additional incidents). Burglary, narcotics and homicide were significantly impacted by weather variations, limiting the correlation of temperature to certain types of crime.


This trend of violent crimes rising with the temperature has been corroborated by several studies across the globe, but it appears to be the only weather condition that relates to an increase in crime. Data collected in the South African city of Tshwane found significantly higher rates of violent, sexual and property crimes on the hottest days; violent crimes in particular rose 50 percent compared to the city’s coldest days. Rainfall had a much less noticeable relationship to crime rates, with a decrease in violent and sexual crimes, and only a 2 percent increase in property crimes.

Similarly, during cold weather conditions (ranging from standard winter to brutal blizzard conditions), crime instances tend to decrease. Knowing that hot weather is a factor in crime rates is valuable for law enforcement, and even more important is understanding why temperature seems to have such an influence on violence.


Current research and scholarship around the connection between temperature and crime, especially the most violent crimes, provides insights into the reason behind this intriguing correlation. Two main theories have been presented as the key reasons that hot temperatures may encourage additional criminal activity: the increase in opportunities for crime and the changes in temperament that result from warmer weather.


One of the most obvious explanations for weather’s apparent impact on crime is that warmer temperatures in general provide more opportunities for crime. Especially compared to cold or stormy weather, warm summer days encourage more time spent away from the home and more outdoor activities.

Along with increased opportunities for property-related crimes, there is an increase in interactions between people. Statistically speaking, more interactions provide a higher likelihood of a violent or criminal encounter. The Philadelphia study mentioned above is clear evidence of this connection between weather and opportunity.


The other element that is often referenced in warm weather’s influence on crime is a change in temperament that occurs along with the change in temperature. In the Finland study, hot temperatures were linked to changes in brain chemistry that made impulse and aggressive actions more likely — and it is far from the only research to make this connection.

Craig Anderson, leader of Iowa’s Center for the Study of Violence and expert in human aggression, explains that heat doesn’t cause violence but does tend to encourage it. As an example, hot temperatures make it more likely a pitcher will hit the player at-bat, but only after a batter on the pitcher’s team has been hit. The heat escalates situations by causing people to perceive more aggression in certain acts than may be intended. In other words, the mental effect of a warm day that makes you more likely to honk your horn is the same one that contributes to greater violence in the heat of summer.


The insight that hot temperatures do, in fact, have a connection to higher crime rates is important for several reasons. For those in law enforcement and related fields, this knowledge will help them prepare for the rise in violent acts that comes with a higher temperature. It can also provide a better understanding of the mental factors that contributed to the commission of a crime.

For environmentalists, the correlation between hot weather and crime is a valuable aspect of understanding the full impact of environmental changes on individuals. With the threat of global warming, temperature’s effect on crime rates becomes an even greater concern, and yet another reason to pay better attention to the environment.

Of course, temperature is just a part of the factors involved in an understanding of criminal justice and the environment, and it’s just one way that the two are connected to each other. At Virginia Wesleyan University, our online criminal justice degree and online environmental studies program are designed for students who want to explore this topic further. Our programs teach you the real-world skills you’ll need to succeed in your career, and we emphasize flexibility so that you can fit your education into your already busy life.

This article was originally published on the website of Virginia Wesleyan University and was re-posted with permission. 

Chicago tree map reveals intriguing pattern: trees seem to reduce crime rate

The most comprehensive tree canopy data set of any region in the U.S. reveals many interesting things, including a startling correlation. Whenever trees go up, crime goes down.

A map of the canopy in the Chicago region (Chicago Region Trees Initiative).

A tree with fruit

The Chicago Region Tree Initiative and Morton Arboretum overlaid a wide variety of data to come up with an extremely detailed interactive map. They combined results with LIDAR imagery, a surveying method that measures distance to a target using a pulse laser. This allowed them to map canopy coverage in great detail.

But creating the map was only the first step. They then started to correlate it with demographic information and look for patterns.

“We’re able to layer heat island data; demographic information such as age, vulnerable population, education background; we’re layering Medicaid claims because we know there’s a correlation between health issues—cardiopulmonary problems—and loss of trees,” says Lydia Scott, director of the Chicago Region Trees Initiative (CRTI).

Left: the LIDAR point cloud. Right: how the LIDAR information is sorted into the seven land cover classes. Image credits: CRTI.

Indeed, the benefits of trees in urban areas have long been discussed. Not only do they stabilize water circulation and prevent soil erosion, but they’re also good for our health. They can capture up to half of the particulate pollution in the air, reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, and help with our mental health.

They were expecting to find such correlations, which they did, but they also found something they weren’t expecting.

The root of crime

Chicago is not really what you would call a peaceful city. The city’s crime rate is substantially higher than the country average, being responsible for nearly half of 2016’s increase in homicides in the US. It’s not yet clear what causes this unusual criminality, and it’s not yet clear how the problem can be solved. But to some extent, trees seem to help.

“We started to look at where we have heavy crime, and whether there was a correlation with tree canopy, and often, there is,” says Scott. “Communities that have higher tree population have lower crime. Areas where trees are prevalent, people tend to be outside, mingling, enjoying their community.”

Trees can prevent crime by improving mental health, promoting a sense of community and safety, and even by eliminating heat islands. Image via Flickr.

Chicago’s richest and safest areas tend to have high canopy covers, up to 40 percent. Meanwhile, on the economically depressed South Side, canopy cover can be as low as 7 percent. The map seemed to show, time after time, that areas with rich canopies are safer, and the ones with high criminality are “tree deserts.”

It seems like a strange idea to digest.

“When we go to talk to communities,” says Lydia Scott, “We say ‘trees reduce crime.’ And then they go, ‘Explain to me how that could possibly be, because that’s the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard.’”

As Atlas Obscura also points out, it seems like one of those “correlation, not causation” things — and this also makes a lot of sense. Poorer neighborhoods see fewer investments and less taking-care-of, so it might be that poorer neighborhoods, which often have high crime rates, just tend to have fewer trees. In other words, criminality and a lack of trees may not be cause and effect but may have a common cause.

However, Scott and colleagues point out to a number of studies indicating the benefits of urban trees, including several which discuss mental benefits. Among those studies, one suggests that trees “may deter crime both by increasing informal surveillance and by mitigating some of the psychological precursors to violence.”

Help the trees help us

Planting trees with Blacks in Green. Image credits: Blacks in Green.

Scott immediately met with the mayor to present their findings and encourage the municipality to start planting more trees strategically — in areas that need them most. Of course, it will take a long time before the benefits are truly reaped, but even in the short term, trees can help communities. They help with both flooding and droughts, they improve property values, provide shelter against the heat and promote feelings of safety.

But, as Blacks in Green, a Chicago-based economic development organization which aims to create self-sustaining black communities through green initiatives learned, trees can do so much more for a community.

“We’re using the green economy to galvanize, organize, energize,” founder Naomi Davis told Atlas Obscura. Davis has met with Scott and CRTI multiple times over the last few years in order to plan BiG’s approach. “When you’re starting something, you should take stock of what you got,” Davis says. “We realized we were going to need to start with a tree inventory. Now we’re finally getting that inventory.”

To make this point, BiG started buying lots from the city (for $1). They’ve created a charming little orchard, with plum, crabapple, and pawpaw trees.

“We are looking at what it would mean to have a green, healthy space in a blighted African-American neighborhood…We have a really nasty, barren, burnt out commercial corridor, which is 61st Street. Last year we planted about 45 trees there.”

When people work to plant or maintain such green spaces, they’re bonding and creating a sense of community, which also helps reduce crime. It could also help people learn a new skill which could land them a job.

“This is something that is a strong career for good-paying wages,” Davis says. “We’re gonna need more trees than ever to be planted because of climate change.” BiG will have a horticulturalist career fair in October. “In a neighborhood where unemployment is so high,” she says, it’s a game-changer.

It’s hard to say exactly how and exactly how much, but it seems clearer and clearer that trees prevent a stunning number of benefits, especially in urban settings. But they’re also at risk, due to invasive species, improper caring, and rising temperatures. Hopefully, municipalities and policy makers will understand these aspects and

Immigration doesn’t cause crime — it may actually reduce it, study shows

A new study led by researchers from the University of Buffalo found no evidence supporting the idea that immigration promotes crime. In fact, the exact opposite might be true, as certain types of crimes seem to go down in cities with high immigration.

Image credits Rebecca / Pixabay.

This might not come as a big surprise if you don’t feel the need to be made great again, but there isn’t much backing the case that immigration increases crime. There will always be political capital to be gained from such populist rhetoric, however — if you don’t mind creating a culture of hate and dividing a nation. It’s a much older discussion which has resurfaced with a vengeance during the last election and in its wake.

But it doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny, as a new paper led by UB associate professor of sociology Robert Adelman shows. In fact, immigration might actually lower the incidence of certain criminal behavior.

“Our research shows strong and stable evidence that, on average, across U.S. metropolitan areas crime and immigration are not linked,” he said.

“The results show that immigration does not increase assaults and, in fact, robberies, burglaries, larceny, and murder are lower in places where immigration levels are higher. The results are very clear.”

Previous studies on arrest and offense records have shown that overall, foreigners are less likely to commit crime than native-born Americans, Adelman said. So instead of focusing on individual cases, he and his team wanted to get a wider picture. They studied large-scale immigration patterns to see if they correlate to increases in a community’s level of crime through the often-touted mechanisms such as ‘they’re taking all our jobs.’

Tear down this wall (of misinformation)

Image credits Silvia & Frank / Pixabay.

The team drew on a sample of 200 metropolitan areas (as delineated by the U.S. Census Bureau). This included all metropolitan areas with a population exceeding one million, and several smaller ones (75,000 to 1 million) chosen randomly. The team corrected for the specific economic condition in each area, then compared their respective census data and uniform crime report data from the FBI between 1970 to 2010. Their results suggest that as the relative size of foreign-born population (FBP) increases, the rate of violent crime, murder, and robbery all decrease.

The paper states that for samples of 100,000 people, every 1% increase in FBP “decreases the overall violent crime rate by 4.9 crimes.” A one percent FBP increase translated to a decrease in 0.11 murders (which is small, but significant considering the relatively low number of murders per 100,000 people), and a 4.3 decrease in robbery. The team also notes that the percentage of foreign-born population isn’t strongly linked to aggravated assault, but that “it is important to note that the direction of the effect is negative.”

“This is a study across time and across place and the evidence is clear,” said Adelman. “We are not claiming that immigrants are never involved in crime. What we are explaining is that communities experiencing demographic change driven by immigration patterns do not experience significant increases in any of the kinds of crime we examined.”

“And in many cases, crime was either stable or actually declined in communities that incorporated many immigrants.”


Adelman adds that the relationship between crime and immigration is complex and more research is needed to understand it. But his research adds to a body of literature concluding that immigrants, as a whole, contribute to America’s social and economic life.

“Facts are critical in the current political environment. The empirical evidence in this study and other related research shows little support for the notion that more immigrants lead to more crime.”

“It’s important to base our public policies on facts and evidence rather than ideologies and baseless claims that demonize particular segments of the U.S. population without any facts to back them up,” he concluded.

The full paper “Urban crime rates and the changing face of immigration: Evidence across four decades” has been published in the Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice.

Watching too much television linked with a distorted view of the justice system

Credit: Flickr

Credit: Flickr

Crime is a favorite theme for both the media and film industry, but when the justice system is excessively dramatized we run at risk of blurring the line between myth and reality. Take the so-called “CSI effect”, for instance — an umbrella term used to describe how people’s view of how criminal investigations are carried out is heavily skewed by such shows as Law & Order,  CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, or even Dateline NBC. This effect, critics believe, is responsible for the myth of the minute-long DNA analysis, which actually can take days, and can even go as far as causing wrongful convictions or acquittals because jurors watched too much TV.

As one district attorney put it, “Jurors now expect us to have a DNA test for just about every case. They expect us to have the most advanced technology possible, and they expect it to look like it does on television.”

One recent study which highlights the effects of TV consumption and myth constructions was performed by researchers at MedUni Vienna’s Center for Public Health. The team asked 322 people living in Austria about their TV habits and then asked them if the death penalty still applies in Austria. The follow-up question in case they answered “yes” was how many people did they thought were on death row.

Despite the death penalty was abolished on 7 February 1968, or almost 50 years ago, the researchers found 11.6 percent of the participants thought the death penalty still applied. The more TV they watched, the higher the probability they thought this was the case.

“It seems that television has the potential to influence viewers’ perception and knowledge of core aspects of society,” the researchers noted in their study.

Benedikt Till, one of the lead researchers, says the link is mainly due to American film and TV series which are very popular with the Austrian public. For Till, this wasn’t all that surprising, as previous research showed distorted reality on TV leads to a distorted reality in the viewers’ mind as well.

“For example, people who watch a lot of television often overestimate the number of people in those professions that are frequently portrayed on television, such as doctors, lawyers or policemen, for example. They also overestimate the probability of being the victim of crime,” Till said.

Next, Till and colleagues plan on researchers whether too much TV is also linked with other prejudices, myths and misinformation about health-related topics. Specifically, the researchers will study media exposure and suicide, and see whether there’s a link between the TV and the public’s perception on this important social issue.

Screenshot from the movie Minority Report.

Machine learning used to predict crimes before they happen – Minority Report style

The word on every tech executive’s mouth today is data. Curse or blessing, there’s so much data lying around – with about 2.5 quintillion bytes of data added each day – that it’s become increasingly difficult to make sense of it in a meaningful way. There’s a solution to the big data problem, though: machine learning algorithms that get fed countless variables and spot patterns otherwise oblivious to humans. Researchers have already made use of machine learning to solve challenges in medicine, cosmology and, most recently, crime. Tech giant Hitachi, for instance, developed a machine learning interface reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report that can predict when, where and possibly who might commit a crime before it happens.

Machines listening from crime

Screenshot from the movie Minority Report.

Screenshot from the movie Minority Report.

It’s called Visualization Predictive Crime Analytics (PCA) and while it hasn’t been tested in the field yet, Hitachi claims that it works by gobbling immense amounts of data from key sensors layered across a city (like those that listen for gun shots), weather reports and social media to predict where crime is going to happen next. “A human just can’t handle when you get to the tens or hundreds of variables that could impact crime,” says Darrin Lipscomb who is directly involved in the project, “like weather, social media, proximity to schools, Metro [subway] stations, gunshot sensors, 911 calls.”

Real footage of the Hitachi crime predicting interface which officers might use. Image: Hitachi

Real footage of the Hitachi crime predicting interface which officers might use. Image: Hitachi

Police nowadays use all sorts of gimmicks to either rapidly intervene when a crime is taking place or take cues and sniff leads that might help them avert one. For instance, police officers might use informers, scour social media for gang altercations or draw a map of thefts to predict when the next one might take place. This is a cumbersome process and officers are only human after all. They will surely miss some valuable hints a computer might easily draw out. Of course, the reverse is also true, as is often the case in fact, but if we’re talking about volume – predicting thousands of possible felonies every single day in a big city – the deep learning machine will beat even the most astute detective.

PCA is particularly effective, supposedly, at scouring social media which Hitachi says improves accuracy by 15%. The company used a natural language processing algorithm to teach their machines how to understand colloquial text or speech posted on facebook or twitter. It knows, for instance, how to pull out geographical information and tell if a drug deal might take place in a neighborhood.

Officers would use PCA’s interface – quite reminiscent of Minority Report, again – to see which areas are more vulnerable. A colored map shows where cameras and sensors are placed in a neighborhood and alerts the officer on duty if there’s a chance a crime might take place there, be it a robbery or a gang brawl. Dispatch would then send officers in the area to intervene or possibly deter would-be felons from engaging in criminal activity.

PCA provides a highly visual interface, with color-coded maps indicating the intensity of various crime indicator

PCA provides a highly visual interface, with color-coded maps indicating the intensity of various crime indicators. Image: Hitachi

In all event, this is not evidence of precognition. The platform just returns vulnerable neighborhoods and alerts officers of a would-be crime. You might have heard about New York City’s stop-and-frisk practice, where suspicious people are searched for guns or drugs. PCA works fundamentally different since it actually offers officers something to start with – it at least provides a more focused leverage. “I don’t have to implement stop-and-frisk. I can use data and intelligence and software to really augment what police are doing,” Lipscomb says. Of course, this raises the question: won’t this lead to innocent people being targeted on mere suspicion fed by a computer? Well, just look at stop-and-frisk. More than 85% of those searched on New York’s streets are either Latino or African-American. Even if you account for differences ethnic crime rates, stop-and-frisk is clearly biased. The alternative sounds a lot better since police might actually know who to target.

Hitachi’s crime prediction tool will be tested in six large US cities soon, which Hitachi has declined to spell. The trials will be double-blinded, meaning police will go on business as usual, while the machine will run in the background. Then Hitachi will compare what crimes the police report with the crimes the machine predicted might have happened. If the two overlap beyond a statistical threshold, then you have a winner.

Three members of a recently contacted tribe walk with weapons in hand in Brazil. (c) FUNAI

Members of a previously uncontacted Amazonian tribe become infected with influenza

Three members of a recently contacted tribe walk with weapons in hand in Brazil. (c) FUNAI

Three members of a recently contacted tribe walk with weapons in hand in Brazil. (c) FUNAI

A few months ago, I reported how Google is using its drones and Google Earth technology to monitor an uncontacted Amazonian tribe. Now, there’s convincing evidence that the same tribe has come in contact with non-indigenous locals, then with western researchers in the most unfortunate of circumstances. One, the contact was initiated by criminals operating illegal narcotrafficking whose routes apparently pass through the tribe’s territory. Allegedly they’ve been threatened and might be forced to relocate, something inconceivable for the locals. Second, the contact might result in dramatic consequences as some members were infected with influenza, a potentially fatal disease for the indigenous population since their immune system lacks non-native adaptation.

Third degree contact

Researchers from Brazil’s Indian affairs department (FUNAI) encountered natives who emerged from the  forest along the Upper Envira River while returning from a raid on another remote, but settled tribe. The tribesmen and researchers spent three weeks together. In this time, an invaluable cultural experience took place. Can you imagine what would it be like to meet people from the future? I’m putting my money this is how the natives must have  felt, too. But the researchers weren’t the first ‘extraterrestrials’ they’ve met, though.

[MUST READ] Loggers burned Amazon 8 year old tribe girl alive, as part of a campaign to force indigenous population out of the land

The team have good reasons to assume the tribe members were fleeing  illegal loggers and cocaine traffickers, yet right now the ‘civilized’ criminals are the least of their worries. According to a FUNAI announcement, the members were infected with influenza. The flue is something most of us can handle – sure, we might get stuck in bed with terrible headaches, but it won’t kill us. The same can’t be said for tribesmen in Brazil’s Acre.

In case after case, contact has proved tragic as diseases like flu and measles almost obliterated previously isolated tribes. History makes a valid point of just how dangerous this kind of situation can become. In 1519, Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztecs and decimated the grand empire’s populace with a force less than 250 strong. While horses, which terrified the natives, and gun powdered offered them a godlike allure, it was the diseases the Spaniards brought with them to an unadapted population that tipped the scales in their favor.

A government medical team is reported to have treated the tribesmen for their flu, but apparently the contacted people slipped back to their village shortly after receiving their shots.

“We can only hope that [the FUNAI team members] were able to give out treatment before the sickness was spread to the rest of the tribe in the forest,” says Chris Fagan, executive director at the Upper Amazon Conservancy in Jackson, Wyoming. “Only time will tell if they reacted quickly enough to divert a catastrophic epidemic.”

According to Adam Bauer-Goulden, president of the Rainforest Rescue Coalition, the tribe in question may be part of a larger group of Chitonahua people. A village of 40 to 100 people was recently photographed  not far south of the contact area, and the body ornamentation and haircuts of these villagers closely resemble those of the newly contacted group as seen in the feature photo for this article.

It’s a worrisome situation, says anthropologist Robert Walker of the University of Missouri, Columbia. “We are just hearing of one of the many contacts that are going on in this region,” he says. “If you think of how many loggers and narcotraffickers there are in this region, and that there could be as many as 3000 to 4000 uncontacted people there, the potential for contact is huge.”

via Science Mag.