Once upon a time, I lived in the little town of Picayune, Mississippi. This morning I discovered that the Picayune Police Department has adopted a novel approach to fighting drug crime: the Wheel of Justice. It seems that the police department puts names and photos of suspected drug dealers on a giant, colorful wheel. At some public venue, the police spin the wheel to choose which drug dealer to arrest that week. On the department’s website, you can watch the video and see which suspects have been identified and apprehended.
Now one obvious question is, if the police have grounds to arrest each person on the wheel, why not arrest them all? And it’s possible that they do just that, or try to. It’s possible that the wheel is a publicity stunt that’s not really doing any selection work. The suspect selected by the wheel is the one arrested with the most fanfare, but the police may continue to seek other suspects behind the scenes. In fact, two suspects who’d been spared by the wheel apparently showed up in court on other matters, were recognized by a police officer, and arrested there.
All the same, resource constraints mean that police departments do face choices about which crimes to investigate, and which suspects to pursue. Suppose that the wheel is in fact doing the work of selection. Is that a good idea? Professor Bernard Harcourt has argued for more randomization in the criminal justice system. Randomization might be a way of lessening the impact of racial bias, and it might be a more honest selection principle than the pretense that we know who is most dangerous. Of course, whether randomization is permissible, or socially tolerated, might depend on the purpose for which it’s used and especially, which pool of people have their names in the hat.