Harnessing artificial intelligence (AI) to meet criminal justice needs


Artificial Intelligence (AI) is revolutionizing various facets of our daily lives, spanning from agriculture to healthcare and transportation. Its far-reaching impact extends to the domain of public safety and criminal justice, offering innovative solutions to address complex challenges. This article explores the applications of AI in criminal justice, highlighting its role in facial recognition, DNA analysis, gunshot detection, and crime forecasting.

At its core, AI is a rapidly advancing field of computer science that strives to replicate human intelligence in machines. It encompasses a broad range of technologies and techniques that enable machines to perceive, learn from experience, and make intelligent decisions independently, without direct human intervention. A key component of AI, machine learning, empowers computers to learn from data, adapt, and improve their performance over time.

One of the essential capabilities of AI, especially relevant in the context of criminal justice, is pattern recognition. Humans excel in recognizing complex patterns and distinguishing objects, people, emotions, and more. AI aims to emulate this human capability through software algorithms and computer hardware. These algorithms enable machines to identify faces, perform complex tasks, interpret medical scans, and predict stock market trends based on data analysis.

AI Applications for Criminal Justice and Public Safety

AI has proven its potential as a valuable resource for public safety and criminal justice through various applications. One prominent application is facial recognition, which is widely used in both public and private sectors. Intelligence analysts often rely on facial images to establish an individual’s identity and location. Analyzing vast amounts of images and videos to identify suspects is a time-consuming and error-prone task for humans. Conversely, AI can tirelessly process large datasets and learn to distinguish individuals based on facial features, similar to a human analyst.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is also leveraging AI to enhance public safety by developing automatic traffic accident detection systems based on video data. These systems help maintain safe and efficient commuter traffic across diverse conditions and locations, including varying weather, lighting, and traffic patterns. AI algorithms have made significant inroads in medicine, particularly in the interpretation of radiological images, offering implications for medical examiners and the criminal justice system when establishing the cause and manner of death. Furthermore, AI has found applications in forensic science, particularly in DNA analysis, and has become a cornerstone of fraud detection, aiding internet companies like PayPal in identifying and preventing fraudulent activities.

NIJ’s Artificial Intelligence Research Portfolio

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) plays a pivotal role in advancing AI research to meet the specific needs of the criminal justice system. The research initiatives supported by NIJ predominantly fall into four key areas: public safety video and image analysis, DNA analysis, gunshot detection, and crime forecasting.

Public Safety Video and Image Analysis

Video and image analysis are crucial in criminal investigations, providing information about individuals, objects, and actions. However, the manual analysis of these data is labor-intensive and prone to human error due to the sheer volume of information and rapidly evolving technologies. AI technologies offer a solution by overcoming human errors and functioning as experts. Traditional software algorithms are limited in their ability to recognize specific features for tasks like facial recognition. AI algorithms, in contrast, not only learn complex tasks but also develop their complex facial recognition features, surpassing human capabilities. These algorithms have the potential to match faces, identify objects, and detect complex events such as accidents and crimes.

In response to the needs of the criminal justice community, NIJ has invested in several areas to improve data collection, imaging, and analysis. For instance, research at the University of Texas at Dallas, funded by NIJ, in collaboration with the FBI and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has demonstrated that AI-based facial recognition algorithms can perform comparably to human facial examiners when limited to a 30-second recognition time. This suggests that AI algorithms can serve as a complementary tool to enhance the accuracy of expert human examiners.

Furthermore, Carnegie Mellon University, with NIJ funding, is developing AI algorithms to improve detection and recognition in images captured at various angles or with low resolution, enhancing the effectiveness of facial matching. Dartmouth College is exploring AI algorithms to identify license plates in low-quality images, aiding investigations.

In the realm of “scene understanding,” researchers at the University of Central Florida, in partnership with the Orlando Police Department, use NIJ funding to develop algorithms for identifying objects and activities in videos without human intervention. This technology has the potential to detect crimes in progress and enhance investigations.

DNA Analysis

AI is proving invaluable in the field of forensic DNA testing, which has transformed the criminal justice system. Advanced DNA analysis can detect even low-level, degraded, or previously unusable DNA evidence. AI may help address challenges arising from highly sensitive DNA analysis, such as identifying DNA mixtures from multiple contributors. Researchers at Syracuse University, with NIJ support, are pioneering a hybrid approach that combines human analysts with data mining and AI algorithms to separate and identify individual DNA profiles more effectively.

Gunshot Detection

Pattern analysis in gunshot audio files is another area where AI can excel. NIJ-funded research by Cadre Research Labs, LLC, focuses on developing algorithms to detect gunshots, differentiate muzzle blasts from shock waves, determine shot-to-shot timings, and estimate probabilities of caliber and class. These algorithms can significantly assist law enforcement in investigations.

Crime Forecasting

Predictive analysis plays a pivotal role in criminal justice, but it is time-consuming and subject to bias and error. AI can revolutionize this process by using vast data to forecast and identify potential outcomes. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, supported by NIJ, are working on computational approaches to statutory interpretation. The goal is to create a computer program that automatically recognizes specific statements relevant to statutory interpretation, potentially speeding up this process.

AI also aids in predicting criminal recidivism. Research by the Research Triangle Institute, in collaboration with law enforcement agencies, involves using algorithms to analyze warrant records and predict the risk of reoffending. This tool will help prioritize warrant service when backlogs exist.

AI is not limited to analyzing data; it can also determine potential victims of elder abuse, distinguish between different forms of exploitation, and predict violent crime. The Chicago Police Department and the Illinois Institute of Technology are using AI algorithms to identify high-risk individuals and construct social networks to enhance violence reduction strategies.


AI has opened new frontiers in the field of criminal justice, offering the potential to prevent crimes through pattern analysis, recognize criminal activities in progress, and provide law enforcement professionals with invaluable tools to enhance public safety. As technology continues to generate vast amounts of data through cameras, videos, and social media, AI’s role in detecting undetected crimes and investigating potential criminal activity becomes increasingly critical. AI also has the potential to transform the nation’s crime laboratories, offering innovative solutions for complex DNA analysis and pattern recognition. By integrating AI with predictive policing analytics, law enforcement can better respond to incidents, prevent threats, and analyze criminal activities. AI is set to become a permanent fixture in the criminal justice ecosystem, contributing to investigative efforts and improving public safety.