We Don't Know

Today feels like a big day in the world of criminal justice.  First, as expected, a federal judge ruled that the NYPD's stop-and-frisk practice was unconstitutional.  In addition, in a speech to the American Bar Association, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder offered a stinging critique of the criminal justice system and mandatory minimums in particular.  Among other things, Holder called for deeper investments in alternatives to incarceration (including drug courts) and a renewed focus on helping former prisoners reenter society.

These announcements have generated a fair amount of attention online.  There are good reasons for this: both developments carry enormous symbolic weight and are a further sign that the winds have shifted in terms of criminal justice.  The assumptions that have guided policymaking for the past generation, particularly the quest for more punitive responses to crime, truly seem to be giving way.

Will these developments fundamentally alter the way the criminal justice system operates in the US?  The only possible answer is: we don't know.

In general, we are living through a best of times/worst of times moment when it comes to knowledge and the criminal justice system.   On the one hand, the past couple of decades have seen dramatic improvements in terms of the availability and use of scientific evidence.  As I have highlighted previously in this space, the Center for Court Innovation recently released research suggesting that 9 out of 10 senior criminal justice officials look to research when making decisions.  We don't have a baseline to compare this finding against, but I'd be shocked if a similar survey taken in, say, 1993, revealed similar support for reading research.  The Department of Justice now maintains a "what works" clearinghouse (crimesolutions.gov) that offers easy access to criminal justice programs that have been documented to be effective by independent evaluators.

On the other hand, we are still largely in the dark about many of the big questions in criminal justice.  Perhaps most fundamentally, there are no definitive answers to why crime has gone down so dramatically in many places in the US over the past generation.

This point was underlined by two articles that recently crossed my desk.

The first, from the great website Crime Report, was titled, "Explaining the US Crime Decline."   In the piece, the criminologist Richard Rosenfeld (one of the stars of Trial and Error in Criminal Justice Reform) talks about a series of roundtables and papers he is helping to organize for the National Institute of Justice.  Along the way, Rosenfeld admits that this process, which will unfold over the course of three years, is unlikely to result in a definitive conclusion.  He also says, "No study has shown that criminal justice efforts, not necessarily limited to the police and corrections, are responsible for all or most of the crime decline."

This statement, and others like it, should encourage a healthy dose of humility among criminal justice agencies (and those of us who work outside the system as well).  Speaking of humility, the other article that I found compelling was a Talking Points Memo blog post that was forwarded to me by Adam Mansky.  Entitled "Humility and History," the piece looks at 50 years of criminal justice reform in the US alongside the murder rate in the US during that period.  The argument is that the murder rate goes a long way towards explaining the politics of crime at any given moment: when the murder rate is up, punitive policies holds sway.  When the murder rate declines, the pendulum swings the other way.

The key line, at least for me, is this one: "If you're open to history and data, it forces humility.  We're in control of less than we imagine and know perhaps even less than that."  It may seem strange to say, but I think these are words to live by.

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