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Pre-crime (or precrime) is a term coined by science fiction author Philip K. Dick. It is increasingly used in academic literature to describe and criticise the tendency in criminal justice systems to focus on crimes not yet committed. Pre-crime intervenes to punish, disrupt, incapacitate or restrict those deemed to embody future crime threats. The term pre-crime embodies a temporal paradox, suggesting both that a crime has not occurred and that the crime that has not occurred is a foregone conclusion.[1]

Origins of the concept[edit]

George Orwell introduced a similar concept in his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four using the term thoughtcrime to describe illegal thoughts which held banned opinions about the ruling government or intentions to act against it. A large part of how it differs from pre-crime is in its absolute prohibition of anti-authority ideas and emotions, regardless of the consideration of any physical revolutionary acts. However, Orwell was describing behaviour he saw in governments of his day as well as extrapolating on that behaviour, and so his ideas were themselves rooted in real political history and current events.

In Philip K. Dick's 1956 science fiction short story "The Minority Report", 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", a trio of "vegetable-like" humans whose "every incoherent utterance" is analyzed by a punch card computer. 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". He cautions about the basic legal drawback to pre-crime methodology: "We’re taking in individuals who have broken no law."[2]

The concept was brought to wider public attention by Steven Spielberg's film Minority Report, loosely adapted from the story. The Japanese cyberpunk anime television series Psycho-Pass has a similar concept.[3]

In criminological theory[edit]

Pre-crime 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, even before they have committed any crime, 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.[4] Similar ideas were advocated by the Social Defense movement and, more recently, by what is seen and criticized as an emerging "new criminology" (Feeley & Simon 1992) or "actuary justice" (Feeley & Simon 1994). The new "pre-crime" or "security society" requires a radically new criminology.[5][6][7][8][9]

Testing for pre-delinquency[edit]

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,[10] 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, The New York Times, 1998[11]

In criminal justice practice[edit]

The frontline of a modern criminal justice system is increasingly preoccupied with anticipating threats, and is the antithesis of the traditional criminal justice system's focus on past crimes.[12] Traditionally, criminal justice and punishment presuppose evidence of a crime being committed. This time-honored principle is violated once punishment is meted out "for crimes never committed".[13] 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.[14] In France, a similarly retrospective measure was introduced in 2008 as "rétention de sûreté" (security detention). The German measure was viewed as violating the European Convention on Human Rights 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).[citation needed]. A similar provision for indefinite administrative detention was found in Finnish law, but it was not enforced after the mid-1970s.[15] Pre-crime is most obvious and advanced in the context of counter-terrorism, though it is argued that, far from countering terrorism, pre-crime produces the futures it purports to prevent.[16].

Current techniques[edit]

Specialist software now exists for crime-prediction by analysing data.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McCulloch and Wilson 2016
  2. ^ Dick, Philip K. (2002). Minority Report. London. pp. 1–43.
  3. ^ Wood, Mark A. (10 May 2018). "Algorithmic tyranny: Psycho-Pass, science fiction and the criminological imagination". Crime, Media, Culture. 15 (2): 323–339. doi:10.1177/1741659018774609.
  4. ^ Leon Radzinowicz and Roger Hood: A History of English Criminal Law and its Administration from 1750 (1986), London: Sweet & Maxwell; pp. 231–387.[clarification needed]
  5. ^ Fitzgibbon 2004
  6. ^ Zedner 2007
  7. ^ Zedner 2009
  8. ^ Zedner 2010
  9. ^ Zedner 2014
  10. ^ Goode, Erica (3 January 2001), "Arnold Hutschnecker, 102, Therapist to Nixon", The New York Times, retrieved 24 Feb 2014
  11. ^ Hutschnecker, Arnold (15 October 1998), "Nixon-Era Plan for Children Didn't Include Concentration Camps", The New York Times, retrieved 24 Feb 2014
  12. ^ McCulloch and Wilson 2016
  13. ^ Anttila 1975, who criticised the measure of security detention
  14. ^ Boetticher/Feest 2008, 263 sq.
  15. ^
  16. ^ McCulloch/Pickering 2009
  17. ^


  • Anttila, Inkeri (1975), Incarceration for Crimes never Committed, Helsinki.
  • Dick, Philip K. (2002), "Minority Report", In: Minority Report, London, 1-43. See The Minority Report
  • 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 (2015), "Abolition in the times of pre-crime. A view from Germany". In: Thomas Mathiesen, The Politics of Abolition Revisited. Milton Park & New York.
  • Fitzgibbon, D.W. (2004), Pre-emptive Criminalization; Risk Control and Alternative Futures. London.
  • 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’". British Journal of Criminology, 49 (5): 628-645.
  • McCulloch, Jude/Wilson, Dean (2016) Pre-crime: Preemption, Precaution and the Future, Routledge, London and New York
  • 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.