One of the most important sports insights in recent times is that talent scouting is more science than art. Traditional “go with your gut” scouts had no shortage of confidence in their abilities, but their results revealed them to be a bit like the proverbial broken clock. In his acclaimed book Moneyball, Michael Lewis chronicled the rise of the statistician and the decline of the traditional scout in baseball. The statisticians believed they could better predict which types of players would generate wins, and while the traditionalists were originally hostile, the statisticians have been overwhelmingly vindicated. Today all major league teams rely on mathematical models.
The bail system is about twenty years behind. In Canada, Justices of the Peace make bail decisions by answering three questions: whether an accused is likely to abscond; whether he is likely to reoffend or obstruct justice; and whether his release would bring the administration of justice into disrepute. All three (and particularly the third, which the Supreme Court recently broadened) are subjective. Justices of the Peace attempt to predict the future using clues from the applicant’s life: whether he is employed, whether he has ties to the community, whether he uses drugs, and so forth.
Justices of the Peace are not psychics and certain American jurisdictions have adopted a more rigorous approach. Statisticians have analyzed which factors contribute to an elevated risk that an accused will abscond or reoffend and the results are sometimes surprising. It turns out, for instance, that employment status, community ties, and history of drug or alcohol abuse are not particularly relevant. Most relevant are age, prior criminal record and any previous failures to appear in court (with more recent offences given greater weight). While these conclusions were initially met with scepticism, jurisdictions that have implemented them have reduced pre-trial prison populations without impairing their ability to maintain community safety. Here’s hoping this approach makes its way north.
Photo credit: “Baseball Glove” by Andrei Niemimaki (CC BY-SA 2.0)