The Criminal Justice System and Big Data

Big data has made gigantic strides in today’s world. In almost every sphere of our lives where technology plays a significant role, like digital communication, social media, education, employment, etc., big data is making its presence felt. The statistical analysis of large-scale data with the aim of identifying patterns in different human activities helps governments all over the world keep various kinds of records to ensure smooth administration.

The criminal justice system, which is a key component of all three branches of any government, i.e. the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary, also makes ample use of big data in the modern, technologically advanced world of today. The entire network of police officers, lawyers and record keepers of digitally stored criminal and legal information are in this endeavor together. Law enforcers, crime investigation bodies, and the people responsible for the execution and implementation of criminal law are using big data to detect crime patterns observed over a large span of time.

The criminal justice system is as much about the investigation of crime as the prevention of it. And big data helps realize this twofold objective in a completely unprecedented way. However, as with any technology, big data too has some limitations and poses certain challenges to the absolute accurate enforcement of criminal law.

Advantages of Big Data Analysis

Criminal records collected over a long period of time help the police know about crime-prone zones. Big data has proved to be a massive boon in this regard as records of criminal activities in the largest areas can be stored in the smallest spaces. This especially helps police stations that have large jurisdictions in effectively managing division of labour. Not only that, being alert beforehand about crime-prone zones aids in mitigating unlawful activities to a great extent.

Big data is equally beneficial in the investigation of crime by the police, detectives and private investigators. The digital footprint that everyone leaves on the internet in this day and age is irremovable. Criminals are no exception. Be it telephonic communication, one’s social media identity or footage captured by CCTV, perpetrators have a myriad of technological hurdles to bypass. And evidence collected against them with the help of big data often turns out to be their nemesis.

Since the collection and maintenance of big data is used to identify and analyse trends in human behavior, it is particularly useful in the criminal justice system, not least for professionals employed in the behavioral science units dealing with criminology. The behavior of felons committing different kinds of nefarious activities is studied in order to categorize criminals on the basis of their modus operandi, the motivations behind their crimes, their choice of targets, etc.

Big data also helps judges in courts declare the fairest sentences when presiding over trials of convicts. The appropriate analysis of all relevant data gathered regarding the accused in a particular case are paid proper attention to. Depending on the nature and degree of the crime committed, given that the accused is actually found guilty, a just sentence is passed according to context, like bail, imprisonment, or custodial remand. Big data can thus provide the maximum amount of data required in a case, which leads to a fair trial.

Perhaps more than just the collection of information, big data facilitates procedures in the criminal justice system in a bigger way by providing easier and greater storage of the information collected. As opposed to earlier, obsolete technology used for record-keeping in criminal law establishments like videotapes and bulky audio-recording equipment to conduct interviews of criminals and other similar activities, big data helps collect and store all relevant digital particulars of a specific culprit or case much more conveniently.

Challenges and Drawbacks of Big Data Deployment

While big data reveals places where crimes have been carried out most frequently in a given period of time, it also alerts criminal operators to the sudden rise in the presence of patrol officers in particular areas. Thus, the alleviation of crime in one locality can lead to a potential rise in another. The prevention of crime as an objective of law enforcement therefore gets turned on its head. Granted that a reduction in crime rate is observed through the identification of crime-prone zones, but it is only transient. Division of police personnel has to be reorganized soon.

Surveillance regulations issued by the government in order to make the job of criminal justice professionals easier are often kept secret from the public at large. This sometimes leads to furores causing protests about the violation of privacy of citizens. Mass vigilance steps taken by the government using big data to monitor social media interactions of the population become the subject of public criticism. The 2018 Cambridge Analytics scandal is a good example of such an incident where objectively sound but practically unethical surveillance measures faced mass outrage.

The criminal justice system also must ensure that they employ thoroughly reliable experts to safeguard sensitive big data. With the advancement in technology, cyber crime has also risen. Highly skilled hackers are constantly on the lookout for top secret data recorded by police and law organizations. This is one aspect where big data can be vulnerable to access by people with ulterior motives. Unlawful infiltrations are not uncommon and must be seen as a threat against the deletion, fabrication and corruption of digital evidence of the highest import.

Big data used by the criminal justice system is also not completely spared from certain systemic flaws. The introduction and collaboration of big data for criminal justice procedures is a recent phenomenon. But criminal justice itself has been there since ages. Although it has evolved with time, the stereotypes and prejudices of people in the form of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, caste and religion have also invaded criminal justice departments over the years. Naturally they have adapted to contemporary society and become as impartial as possible. But big data simply hasn’t had the time to evolve. In establishing patterns, big data often will highlight one community of people as more susceptible to wrongdoing than others.

So, despite providing several advantages to criminal investigation, prevention of crime and law enforcement, information gathered using big data must be taken with a pinch of salt as it also presents certain challenges that must be overcome by the criminal justice system.

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