Is Science Taking Hold In Criminal Justice?


Scientific principles are increasingly being used in criminal justice practices, but it may take years for them to penetrate the entire field.

The anecdotal evidence of science's expansion in criminal justice is mounting, an American Society of Criminology panel was told last week at its annual conference in San Francisco.

The panel, organized by Criminal Justice Journalists, which collaborates with The Crime Report, heard from some of the country’s leading criminologists.

Joan Petersilia of Stanford University Law School observed that criminologists in her state have been seated at the “head of the table” in policymaking for some time. Petersilia, who has been a key consultant of recent California governors on corrections policy, added that they have developed so much influence at times that policy may have changed a bit too quickly.

“Has science taken hold? Absolutely. It's front and center in California,” she said.

However, Petersilia cautioned, the quality of the available science in some justice areas is weak and officials should not overpromise results.

On the national level, other speakers noted that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has created a Science Advisory Board and started a website called, which carries studies assessing criminal justice programs. The site has won wide praise for providing an objective guide to programs that work and don't work.

Juvenile justice is one area where evidence of “what works” is strongly established, claimed Peter Greenwood of Advancing Evidence Based Practice, a non-profit group focusing on programs for at-risk youth..

Greenwood said several models for treating youth involved in the juvenile justice system cover the full range of child development and can “pay for themselves many times over.” Some states have not adopted the models, partly because they require local investments to get started, he said.

Greg Ridgeway, who until recently was acting director at the National Institute of Justice, DOJ's crime-research agency, declared there was “more willingness [of government officials] to participate in the scientific enterprise.”

Ridgeway, now on the criminology faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, cited ongoing studies of such diverse problems as school safety and the ideal length of police officers' shifts.

Meanwhile, the International Association of Chiefs of Police started a Research Advisory Committee, co-chaired by former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson and former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis.

Robinson, in remarks read to the panel, said police chiefs from departments of all sizes are showing interest in science-based approaches to crime-fighting.

But she added that despite the recent advances, much anticrime policy has long been based on unproved assumptions and ideology, and it will take a long time to eliminate that.

“We're not doing enough to change the culture in frontline criminal justice organizations to embrace science,” said Robinson.

Even if organizational leaders invoke the use of science, it may not be relied on throughout the lower ranks, she noted, recalling that one community corrections agency worker asked a colleague, “Oh, are we still doing 'evidence-based approaches'?” as if it were the “flavor of the month,” Robinson said.

A further complication is that some key supporters of science-based approaches are departing the stage, such as Attorney General Eric Holder; criminologist Alfred Blumstein, chair of the DOJ Science Advisory Board; and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) of the House committee that controls DOJ spending.

It's not clear how strongly their successors will push for science in criminal justice.

The DOJ, which sets the tone for much criminal justice innovation through its multi-billion-dollar annual grant making, is dominated by lawyers and not scientists.

“The culture of science has a long way to become implanted in the DNA of DOJ,” Blumstein, of Carnegie Mellon University, told the criminology panel.

He noted that the science board meets only twice a year, hardly enough time to go deeply into DOJ programs. Among major areas in criminal justice, the use of science has progressed farthest in policing, “slowly working its way down” from the large police agencies to the smaller ones, Blumstein said.

Another speaker was Thomas Abt of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, former chief of staff at DOJ's Office of Justice Programs and more recently Deputy Secretary for Public Safety under New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Abt agreed that scientific principles are being followed in DOJ's grant-making agencies, such as in the national corrections-reform movement known as justice reinvestment. He noted, however, that research and development activities amount to less than 1 percent of the Justice Department's overall budget, far less than at many other federal agencies.

“We need full parity,” he said.

More efforts are needed to make criminal-justice research results “relevant, available and impactful,” Abt said.

He added that a better label than “evidence-based policies” for the role of science in criminal justice would be “evidence-informed policies.”

Rigorous research does help show policymakers what is effective but does not provide the “complete answer” to thorny criminal-justice issues, he said.

Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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