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PREDICTING VIOLENCE: IS THERE ANYTHING THE LAW CAN DO?

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By: Veronica Henderson, Attorney.

When violence strikes a community, it causes people to wonder if there is anything that can be done to prevent it. Can violence be predicted and stopped before it happens? Can violent people be thwarted from engaging in acts of violence?

Recently, the El Centro community experienced at least 6 people who lost their lives to violence – all within the span of a few weeks. When such tragedies occur, the hope is that we can learn ways to prevent them from happening again.

The movie, “Minority Report” told the story of a world where “Pre-crime” officers stopped acts of violence before they happened. They were able to determine who was going to engage in such acts. Of course, this was just a fictionalized story. In the real world in which we all live, we rely on criminologists and psychologists to give us some insight into predictors of violence. Richard A. Berk, Professor of Criminology and Statistics at the University of Pennsylvania, along with some colleagues, created an algorithm that sought to predict who was going to kill or be killed. In high risk groups, it is predicted that 1 in 100 individuals will experience violent death. However, the algorithm created by Prof. Berk was able to identify 1 in 8 such individuals, depending on their characteristics. The two biggest factors in determining a future murderer were the types of crimes previously committed and the age at which they were committed. The younger the individual and the more serious his prior criminal acts, the greater likelihood of homicide. Other researchers expanded the knowledge base, finding that there are five factors that distinguish people who commit homicide from those who do not. Again, age stood out as a significant factor. Four other commonalities in people who committed homicides were (1) significantly lower IQ; (2) violent neighborhood; (3) higher perceptions of living in a neighborhood characterized by disorder, and (4) high prevalence of guns.

CRIME SCENEThese studies help to dispel the belief that murderers are all psychopaths or mentally ill people, even though a certain subset of that population certainly are. Other sociological factors contribute to the equation.

Given what we do know, or at least might know, can the law step in? For example, if younger people are more likely to be the perpetrators and victims of violent death, should the courts intervene to stop a violent youth after he commits a crime but before he kills? Should young adults (for example, 18 to 24) be treated differently than older adults who commit crimes?

Our system is not set up to adequately address these sociological realities. Correctly so, we preserve fundamental rights of due process; a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. A minor is given the benefits of rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system.

 For those who have succumbed to violence, the question for their friends and families will undoubtedly be: “Could we have done something to prevent this?” Might the victim still be alive if someone had intervened somehow, some way?

Although the answers are not easy to come by, one thing is certain. We should all pay attention to what is going around us, with whom our friends and family members are contacting, and take action when warning signs are evident. In this way, we can all participate in crime prevention.

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