What is a Precrime?

Mary McMahon

Precrime is a term used in the criminal justice system and in studies of criminal justice matters to refer to events occurring before a crime, some of which may have precipitated the event. It was borrowed for the short story “Minority Report,” by Philip K. Dick, where it was used in a slightly different context, to discuss the idea of a “precrime unit” that could apprehend people before they committed crimes on the basis of precognitions. Such units do not actually exist, but some criminal justice scholars believe profiling and similar tools can be used to identify people at risk of committing crimes so interventions could be provided before crimes takes place.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

In addition to being used to talk about circumstantial events, like what happened on the night of a murder or robbery, this term can also refer to profiling individuals to collect information about them before they committed crimes. This information may be useful in sentencing, with one side or the other arguing for a weaker or stronger sentence on the basis of special information, like the fact that someone stole food from the grocery store to feed a hungry family member. Such analysis is also useful for the purpose of criminal profiling with the goal of apprehending criminals more rapidly; a profiler can develop an estimate of an unknown criminal's basic traits in the course of investigating a crime to generate a list of potential persons of interest.

Sometimes, extenuating circumstances can come up in a precrime investigation, one reason people like to get information about the background of a crime. A person may have been coerced or manipulated into committing a crime, for instance, or the investigation could uncover the involvement of another party who was not present for the actual crime, but played a role in its perpetration. Precrime investigations may also be used to identify parties of interest for future crimes, on the basis of information collected about people and a community.

Precrime profiles of people who commit crimes provide valuable information to people interested in crime prevention. Risk factors like age, level of education, class, and so forth can be compiled to identify people at risk of committing crimes in the future, or at risk of repeat crimes in the case of people already in the system. These can be used for interventions like community activity programs to give people something to do, serving as a distraction or escape from criminal activity.

Profiling is controversial in some regions. Some people argue it increases public safety and provides a framework for rapidly narrowing down on potential suspects in crimes. Others feel it creates unfair situations and may expose specific people to more common targeting by law enforcement. Law enforcement agencies try to balance these concerns to treat people equally while also using common sense and statistical analysis in criminal investigation.

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