Can Virtual Reality Play a Role in the Area of Criminal Justice?

By Rory Wells

The arrival of new technology will always also bring new opportunities for nefarious behavior.   I am certain it was not long after the invention of the mass produced automobile, where we had our first vehicular homicide.  Similarly at some point after the invention of the telephone we were introduced to phone scams.  This behavior continues to persist because there are always people who succumb to these cons.  Some of us may have received a call (or even an email) from a far away “lawyer” or “banker” requesting a small fee or perhaps your social security number and a great inheritance will be sent your way.  Some of these crimes seem obvious now in hindsight; however the problem with new technology is that it is “new”.  We can’t always predict how some may use it to harm, steal or even kill another human being.

Like many of you reading this blog post I am very excited about the development of virtual reality/augmented reality and the incredible promise it holds.  Whether it be, gaming, shopping, recreation, education or communication, it is exciting to have a front row seat and watch this technology develop.  

Although courts have a resistance to new technology, or anything new for that matter, there are clearly opportunities for VR/AR to impact the criminal justice system.  We now have 360 degree video which could easily put a jury into the crime scene in a much more interactive way than merely looking at photos or regular video.  But I wonder what if we had a virtual experience supported by the latest brain research could assist a violent criminal break old habits and patterns by developing new neural connections.  This experience might help a violent offender change or control their behavior thereby assisting in rehabilitation and overall safety of others.  

Or perhaps a virtual reality program where one who is up for parole, voluntarily submits to a series of scenarios enabling us to see his or her choices played out.  Let’s say the individual is at his first job after release and we have a scenario where his new boss yells at him for breaking a dish, or he is walking down the street and various crimes of opportunity are presented in subtle ways.  These developments may lead us to a more definitive conclusion on whether to release an inmate on parole.    

Of course the technology can be used for the training of police officers as well.  This would include everything from community policing scenarios to hostage negotiations.  

With the development of new technologies there are always ethical questions that should be asked.  What are we doing, why are we doing it and should we be doing it at all?  Regarding these developing technologies and their applications to human behavior we should not ask; what is available and how can this help us?  We should ask what do we need and how can we create it?  

Rory Wells is a member of VRARA NYC Chapter and Co-Chair of the newly formed Criminal Justice Committee.  He is an Assistant Prosecutor with the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office in Ocean County New Jersey.