Precrime is a term invented by Science Fiction author Philip K. Dick. It is increasingly used in academic literature (usually spelled "pre-crime") to describe and critizise the tendency in criminal justice systems to focus on crimes not yet committed. A few practical examples can be found recently in European criminal law.
Origins of the concept
"Precrime" was popularized by Stephen Spielberg's Minority Report, which was adapted from the 1956 science fiction short story The Minority Report by Philip K. Dick. In the story, "Precrime" is the name of a criminal justice agency, the task of which is to identify and eliminate persons who will commit crimes in the future. The agency’s work is based on the existence of "precog mutants", i.e. vegetable-like idiots, who have the gift of prophecy. As Anderton, the chief of the Precrime agency, explains the advantages of this procedure: "in our society we have no major crimes...but we do have a detention camp full of would-be criminals". But he also cautions about the “basic legalistic drawback to precrime methodology. We’re taking in individuals who have broken no law.”
Pre-crime in criminological theory
Precrime in criminology dates back to the positivist school in the late 19th century, especially to Cesare Lombroso’s idea that there are “born criminals”, who can be recognized on the basis of certain physical characteristics. Biological, psychological and sociological forms of criminological positivisms informed criminal policy in the early 20th century. For born criminals, criminal psychopaths and dangerous habitual offenders eliminatory penalties (capital punishment, indefinite confinement, castration etc.) were seen as appropriate (cf.Leon Radzinowicz/Roger Hood: A History of English Criminal Law, London 1986, pp. 231–387). Similar ideas were advocated by the Social Defense movement and, more recently, by what is seen and critizised as an emerging “new criminology” (Feeley/Simon 1992) or “actuary justice” (Feeley/Simon 1994). The new "precrime" or "security society" requires a radically new criminology (Zedner 2007; Zedner 2009; Zedner 2010; Zedner 2014).
Testing for pre-delinquency
Richard Nixon's psychiatrist, Arnold Hutschnecker, suggested, in a memorandum to the then president, to run mass tests of "pre-delinquency" and put those juveniles in "camps". Hutschnecker, a refugee from Nazi Germany and a vocal critic of Hitler at the time of his exodus, has rejected the interpretation of the memorandum, that he advocated concentration camps:
It was the term camp that was distorted. My use of it dates back to when I came to the United States in 1936 and spent the summer as a doctor in a children's camp. It was that experience and the pastoral setting, as well as the activities, that prompted my use of the word "camp."—Hutschnecker, Arnold, "Nixon-Era Plan for Children Didn't Include Concentration Camps", Letter to the Editor, New York Times, 1998
Pre-crime in criminal justice practice
Traditionally, criminal justice and punishment presupposes evidence of a crime being committed. This time-honored principle is violated once punishment is meted out “for crimes never committed” (Anttila 1975, who criticised the measure of security detention). Today, a clear example of this trend is “nachträgliche Sicherungsverwahrung" (retrospective security detention), which became an option in German criminal law in 2004. This “measure of security” can be decided upon at the end of a prison sentence on a purely prognostic basis (Boetticher/Feest 2008, 263 sq.). In France, a similarly retrospective measure was introduced in 2008 as “rétention de sûreté” (security detention). The German measure was viewed as violating the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union by the European Court of Human Rights in 2009. It was, however, never completely abolished in Germany and new legislation is envisaged to continue this practice under the new name “Therapieunterbringung” (detention for therapy). Other examples of pre-crime in in criminal justice practice can be found in profiling and in the identification and elimination of potential terrorists (cf. McCulloch/Pickering).
- Anttila, Inkeri (1975), Incarceration for Crimes never Committed, Helsinki.
- Dick, Philip K. (2002), "Minority Report", In: Minority Report, London, 1-43.
- Feeley, Malcolm/Simon, Jonathan (1992), "The new penology: notes on the emerging strategy of corrections and its implications" In. Criminology, vol. 30, 449-74
- Feeley, Malcolm/Simon, Jonathan (1994): "Actuarial Justice: the emerging new criminal law". In: David Nelken (ed.) The Futures of Criminology, London.
- Feest, Johannes/Boetticher, Axel, "German criminal and prison policy". In: Peter Tak/Manon Jendley (eds.) Prison Policy and Prisoners’ Rights. Nijmegen, 361-390.
- Hutschnecker, Arnold (1988), Letter to the Editor (Nixon-Era Plan for Children didn’t include Concentration Camps), New York Times, 15.10.1988.
- McCulloch, Jude/Pickering, Sharon (2009): "Pre-Crime and Counter-Terrorism Imagining Future Crime in the ‘War on Terror’". In: British Journal of Criminology, 49 (5): 628-645.
- Zedner, Lucia (2014), "Preventive Detention of the Dangerous". In: Andrew Ashworth/Luica Zedner/Patrick Tomlin (eds.) Prevention and the limits of the Criminal Law. Oxford University Press, 144-170.
- Zedner, Lucia (2010), "Pre-Crime and pre-punishment: a health warning". In: Criminal Justice Matters, 81: 1, 24-25.
- Zedner, Lucia (2009), Security. London, 72 ff.
- Zedner, Lucia (2007), "Pre-crime and post-criminology?". In: Theoretical Criminology, vol. 11, no. 2, 261-281.
- Dick, Philip K. (2002). Minority Report. London. pp. 1–43.
- Goode, Erica (3 Jan 2001), "Arnold Hutschnecker, 102, Therapist to Nixon", New York Times, retrieved 24 Feb 2014
- Hutschnecker, Arnold (15 October 1998), "Nixon-Era Plan for Children Didn't Include Concentration Camps", New York Times, retrieved 24 Feb 2014