‘Moneyballing Criminal Justice’: Using Statistics to Fight Crime

In this series of commentaries on analytics-related TED Talks, we examine how insights from predictive analysis can solve real-world problems and how various experts are making that happen.

Anne Milgram has coined her own phrase for the use of predictive analytics to create business intelligence and insight—”moneyballing criminal justice.” She figured if the use of data analytics and quantitative analysis in making player decisions was good enough for the Oakland A’s, it would be good enough for the legal system.

In her TED Talk: Why Smart Statistics are the Key to Fighting Crime, she begins by discussing her past role as New Jersey’s attorney general and her attempt to understand “who we were arresting, who we were charging, and who we were putting in jail.” She also wanted to decipher “if we were making decisions in a way that made us safer.”

What she quickly found was that there was no data accessible to answer her questions—and that the most common method of tracking down information was by sifting through piles of case files with a pen and legal pad in hand. Further, it dawned on her after a day in the Camden police department—where they were working desperately to reduce a very high crime rate—that their crime-tracking system was based not on data but on a board plastered with a collection of sticky notes: “We weren’t using data-driven policing. We were essentially trying to fight crime with yellow Post-it notes.”

Milgram came to understand that they were failing, and that many of their most important decisions were being made based on an informal array of gut instincts and haphazard systems—with no use of analytics to back them up. It made her start thinking differently about how those decisions should be made. She describes how her change in roles from assistant district attorney to federal prosecutor provided her with a more comprehensive view of the legal system: “What I learned very quickly is that we weren’t doing a good job. So I wanted to do things differently. I wanted to introduce data and analytics and rigorous statistical analysis into our work. In short, I wanted to moneyball criminal justice.”

Citing the Oakland A’s use of data analytics to gather intelligence on prospective players and win games, Milgram decided to move forward with a business analytics approach. She put it to use in the Camden police department—resulting in a 41 percent reduction in murders, a reduction in all crime by 26 percent.

When she moved on to her role at the Arnold Foundation, she decided to focus on using data and predictive analytics to help make one of the most important decisions in the criminal justice system—the determination of how much risk there is to public safety by someone who has been arrested. She notes that this determination impacts a multitude of variables, starting with whether a person should be detained.

She found that although risk assessment tools existed, they were rarely used due to limited application, complexity, and cost. As a result, she assembled a team of data scientists, researchers, and statisticians to build a universal risk assessment tool based on specific criteria derived from their research covering 1.5 million cases across the United States: “We were able to basically find that there were 900-plus risk factors that we could look at to try to figure out what mattered most. And we found that there were nine specific things that mattered all across the country and that were the most highly predictive of risk.” The universal risk assessment tool they created provides judges and others with a data-driven decision-making approach that can be more fair and objective, and they are working on similar tools to support prosecutors and police officers as well.

Milgram’s data analytics approach to criminal justice has been catching on around the country. Thanks to programs such as the Smart Policing Initiative (SPI), a collaboration between the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the nonprofit CNA Corporation, police departments have access to new resources to integrate data analysis and predictive analytics into their daily work. In particular, SPI provides funding, training, and technical assistance for data-centered crime prevention programs in police departments across the country.

In a Forbes piece by Erin Richey, James Coldren, Jr., principal research scientist at the CNA Corporation Institute for Public Research discussed the positive results they’re seeing by using data analytics.

“There are some places where there have been dramatic reductions in violent crime, and in places that have been, for 20 years or more, the most persistent, chronic violent spots in these cities.” he said. “We go to the really challenging problem. And when you see a statistically significant difference in a place that has been resistant to all police attempts to solve the problem for years, that speaks volumes.”

One city where such differences have been seen is Philadelphia, where the police department began applying this program in 2013 and witnessed significant drops in crime within previously high-crime areas. Due to the success of data-driven practices, the department recognized its need to have more officers trained in data analytics. By January of 2014, 26 police officers had been trained for this role to serve the 21 districts across the city—with at least one per district.

However, even with the success of data-driven criminal justice, both Milgram and those involved with the SPI program note that it’s not meant to replace the instincts and knowledge that experience provides, but to serve as a complement to support individuals within the criminal justice system, helping them to work more safely and effectively while also driving down costs.

A former prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office and at the U.S. Department of Justice, Anne Milgram was appointed as New Jersey’s attorney general in 2007, overseeing 21 prosecutors and some 30,000 law enforcement officers. She is currently the vice president of criminal justice at the Arnold Foundation. A graduate of Rutgers, Milgram also holds a Master of Philosophy degree in social and political theory from Cambridge and a law degree from the NYU School of Law—where she serves as a senior fellow on the administration of criminal law.