A Criminal Justice Primer for Policymakers


The latest edition of one of the country's most authoritative criminal justice anthologies adds sex offenders, race and crime, and prisoner re-entry to its list of “hot topics.” Anthology co-editor Joan Petersilia explains why in a conversation with The Crime Report's Ted Gest.

Criminologist Joan Petersilia of Stanford Law School and political scientist James Q. Wilson of Pepperdine University have published the fourth volume of their widely praised series, “Crime & Public Policy” (Oxford University Press, 2011). The series, which first appeared in 1983, was designed, according to Petersilia, to draw on “the most comprehensive, sophisticated intelligent thinking that academics had to offer.”

The new volume reflects some of the major changes in criminal justice policy and practice since the last edition in 2002. In an exclusive interview with TCR, Petersilia discusses some of those changes, in areas ranging from sentencing reform and policing to policies towards sex offenders.

And she points out how far we still need to go in developing sound crime prevention policies, eliminating racial disparities, and pursuing evidence-based solutions in a political climate where “tough on crime” is still a vote-getter. Warns Petersilia, “public policy goes awry when legislators react in a knee-jerk way. “

The Crime Report: How does this work differ from other writings on criminal justice?

JP: We wanted a volume that can be read by high-level policy makers. We asked each contributor to write, in no more than 30 pages, why their subject is important, the rigor of the evidence they have to draw on, what we should do once we know the evidence, and where bad policy is made because people are not paying attention to the evidence. We want a mayor or governor to be able to pick up the volume and trust what is in there.

TCR: How did you organize the subject matter?

JP: Some chapters are on the broader context, such as biology, crime causation, and international crime. Much of it is on the criminal justice system itself—policing, juvenile crime, sentencing, corrections. A third section is what you might call “hot topics”—what's on the agenda now that people need help with. Among those topics in this volume are sex offenders, race and crime and prisoner re-entry. That last topic wasn't even mentioned in the last volume.

TCR: The previous volume was prepared about a decade ago. Did things change enough in most key areas to require revising every chapter?

JP: Yes, in many areas. For example, Lawrence Sherman (of the University of Maryland and Cambridge University) rewrote the policing chapter to talk about “hot spots” policing, CompStat, and other new trends. Francis Cullen (of the University of Cincinnati) and Cheryl Lero Jonson (of Northern Kentucky University).did a total update on rehabilitation and treatment.

TCR: Why did you add a chapter specifically on sentencing?

JP: It's really a whole field that has emerged in the last decade. Criminal sentencing used to be all indeterminate [few fixed penalties]. Now there is a myriad of sentencing structures, including indeterminate but also determinate, discretionary parole, mandatory release, etc. Kevin Reitz (of the University of Minnesota) studied all of the variations in sentencing. Once, there was one way to do it. Now it's different in all 50 states. Reitz notes the variations in practice, but says there is very little science to tell states what they get from adopting one structure over another. There is no unifying structure. We have no idea which of these systems produces the best results. We don't know much of anything.

TCR: Why focus on sex offenders?

JP: It's a very small piece of the criminal justice pie, but it's five percent of the criminal population that drives half of the policy discussions. The public is incredibly tough on sex offenders while being more lenient on other kinds of offenders. Sex offenders symbolize the new “tough on crime,” but we have to understand what is going on.

It's one of the subjects in our book surrounded by the most misinformation. For example, in California, all sex offenders are being monitored by GPS for their lifetimes, but that was enacted with no budget or legal analysis and now is tied up in the courts.

Public policy goes awry when legislators react in a knee-jerk way, driving up expenditures. We got the leading people to write about it—Eric Beauregard of Simon Fraser University in Canada and Roxanne Lieb of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. They write about the mismatch between restrictions that prevent sex offenders from living near parks and day care centers and the fact that most offenders victimize people they already know. The restrictions may make the public seem safe but aren't consistent with the evidence.

TCR: You focus on making criminal justice policy according to the scientific evidence of what works. Have we made any progress over the years?

JP: We have made great strides in some areas, such as prisoner re-entry, policing, rehabilitation and treatment, and drug policy. In juvenile justice, some states are moving incarcerated juveniles back to their communities. Some places that are downsizing to cut the budget are looking at the scientific evidence when they make changes.

One example of experimenting with how to get more for less is Hawaii's Project HOPE, in which, as three of our authors write, a judge decided to impose randomized testing and formulaic sanctions on 35 persistently non-compliant felony probationers. The results were dramatic: HOPE participants reduced time behind bars by two-thirds.

TCR: Can you identify an area where we are not making so much progress?

JP: One is crime prevention, which often represents an increase in public resources, such as in improvement of families, labor markets, and the community. I don't think that's what most policy makers are thinking about.

Another is racial disparities. One of our new chapters is by Harvard Law Prof. Randall Kennedy, who writes that “allegations of racial mistreatment continue to haunt the administration of criminal justice.” He also says that “the perception that racial discrimination in policing is widespread is a social phenomenon with important consequences.”

TCR: Will there be less concern about what your writers have to say because reported crime rates are so much lower in the United States than when you published your last volume?

JP: What goes down could come up. We shouldn't feel too confident that crime will stay down. Shawn Bushway of the University at Albany, in a chapter about labor markets and crime, writes that, “As the United States begins a national discussion about re-incarceration, researchers and policymakers need to come to grips with the low levels of labor-market participation among young adult men.”

TCR: Why do you say we should not be complacent about our current national crime rate?

JP: It may appear fairly good now, but it's not good if you compare it with other industrialized countries or if you look at large, inner-city neighborhoods. As crime rates are deconstructed in our book by Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri, our rates of homicide with guns still are above any other industrialized nation. Still, crime doesn't have to be on the newspaper front pages to maintain a national concern. We need people working behind the scenes to make changes.

TCR: Overall, are more places using good evidence to make anticrime policy?

JP: It's a mixed picture. Perhaps a growing minority are doing so, but the budget crisis cuts both ways. Some places are saying that they can't deal much with scientific evidence when they have to reduce programs.

TCR: Does your co-editor James Q. Wilson share your general views?

JP: He (writes) in the book, “The most important thing to do is to move toward evidence-based criminal justice policies.” A good example he cites is that although we know punishment deters crime, “it is probably the swiftness and certainty of being imprisoned more than the severity of the penalty that has the largest effect.”

The fact is, (Wilson) concludes, “Politically it is much easier [for the federal government] to send money to law enforcement agencies without asking them to find out what works. That episodic approach is a mistake. The nation needs a continuous and systematic commitment to the development of evidence-based law enforcement.”

Ted Gest is a contributing editor of The Crime Report, and president of Criminal Justice Journalists. He welcomes comments.

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