In 1978, Thomas Barefoot was convicted of killing a police officer in Texas. During the sentencing phase of his trial, the prosecution called two psychiatrists to testify about Barefoot’s “future dangerousness,” a capital-sentencing requirement that asked the jury to determine if the defendant posed a threat to society.
The psychiatrists declared Barefoot a “criminal psychopath,” and warned that whether he was inside or outside a prison, there was a “one hundred percent and absolute chance” that he would commit future acts of violence that would “constitute a continuing threat to society.” Informed by these clinical predictions, the jury sentenced Barefoot to death.
Although such psychiatric forecasting is less common now in capital cases, a battery of risk assessment tools has since been developed that aims to help courts determine appropriate sentencing, probation and parole. Many of these risk assessments use algorithms to weigh personal, psychological, historical and environmental factors to make predictions of future behavior. But it is an imperfect science, beset by accusations of racial bias and false positives.
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