Fixing The Broken Criminology-Policy Making Connection

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Criminologists long have complained that their expertise is routinely ignored when criminal justice policies are made by legislators and other government executives.

The two leading U.S. organizations of academic criminologists have taken a big step to fill that gap.

The American Society of Criminology and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences have joined forces to create the Crime and Justice Research Alliance (CJRA), which the groups declare is “a centralized resource of authoritative experts and scholarly studies created to provide policymakers, practitioners and the public direct access to relevant research on crime and criminal justice issues.”

Last week, the alliance formally launched its website, crimeandjusticeresearchalliance.org, which features an “expert directory” of criminologists whose advice is deemed reliable for policy makers, journalists, and others who are interested in accurate information about crime and justice.

The experts’ areas of interest are broken down to include the specialties of crime prevention, criminal justice reform, criminal justice technology, gun violence, incarceration, juvenile justice, policing, prisoner reentry, race and inequality, terrorism and homeland security, victimization, and violent crime.

The alliance’s formation grew out of experts’ concern over the years that many criminal justice practices do not reflect the evolving science behind what works and doesn’t when it comes to preventing crime and dealing with offenders.

Among the concepts whose effectiveness has been challenged by research: military-style “boot camps” for minor offenders, gun buybacks by police departments, “scared straight” programs in which young people meet with hardened criminals, drug abuse resistance education (DARE), and trying many juvenile-crime defendants in adult courts.

Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, heads the alliance’s board of directors. She explains that the alliance does not take stands on controversial criminal justice issues but rather aims to provide accurate information to policymakers based on research.

One exception is seeking appropriations for the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) at the U.S. Justice Department, which is the main federal agency supporting criminology,

“When research for criminal justice is on the chopping block, we want to emphasize its importance and advocate for resources that are critical to our field,” La Vigne says.

One prominent criminologist who campaigned for the alliance’s formation is Todd Clear, former provost of Rutgers University-Newark and former Dean of the university’s School of Criminal Justice. Clear has served terms as president of both criminology groups that have formed the alliance.

Clear says experts often have spoken out about criminal justice practices that do not work, but “more important is the evidence base that criminology is now building about what DOES work. We are in a better position than ever before to give advice about strategies, policies, and practices.”

He explains that, “It is all well and good to say such-and-such is not a very good idea. But it is a big change in the dynamics about crime policy that we can now say that certain strategies are really important to undertake. Proven strategies are worth their weigh in gold.”

He offers a list of examples in which reliable research is available: place-based and intelligence-led policing, police legitimacy, diversion form prison to specialized courts, especially drug courts, and supervision of offenders based on their risk to society and their needs.

Clear observed that, “Research has under-girded the entire conversation about mass incarceration.”

Among key findings, he says, have been “the small effect of prison size on crime rates, the massive collateral consequences of incarceration for children, families, and communities, the minuscule deterrent effect of prison, and the robustness of community based sanctions.”

To maximize its effectiveness in Congress, the alliance has hired Thomas Culligan of the Brimley Group in Washington, who for six years headed the staff of former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who chaired the House subcommittee overseeing the Justice Department’s annual appropriations.

The alliance also has hired public-relations specialist Caitlin Kizielewicz to inform journalists nationwide of the resources on the alliance’s site.

Culligan says that with crime and justice a somewhat hotter topic now than it has been in recent years, there is a “hunger by members of Congress and their staffs on Capitol Hill for research that is on the cutting edge in different areas of criminal justice.”

Because many Congressional staff members must handle several different issues and cannot specialize in one subject, the alliance can connect them with academic experts from around the U.S., Cullligan says.

Among the topics that have been of interest this year are sentencing reform, police use of force and body cameras, asset forfeiture, provision of surplus military equipment to law enforcement, and mental health issues in the justice system, he says.

Culligan admits that it may not be easy to win the day in Congress on every issue. “Research is a tough sell in a tough budget environment,” he says.

Last year, in fact, Wolf’s successor as committee chair, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), proposed to eliminate the line item in the federal budget for NIJ and require the Attorney General to find other funds in the Justice Department of budget to support research on crime and justice.

The Senate view that the NIJ budget should be retained prevailed in the final appropriations bill, but the total of $36 million is very small in a DOJ budget of nearly $30 billion.

The alliance wrote in March to leaders of Senate and House committees that review DOJ spending that, “Over the last two years, we have seen an unprecedented demand from federal, state and local policymakers and law enforcement officials for objective research to inform necessary reforms to policies involving policing, prison and sentencing reform, mental health, addiction and community trust-building activities.”

Policy reforms now pending in Congress “are relying heavily on the research and program evaluations that are funded through NIJ and BJS,” the alliance said. “While we are pleased with the growing interest and application of criminal justice research, we are deeply concerned about the limited resources available to these agencies to accommodate this increasing demand.”

This year, the alliance is supporting President Obama’s request that NIJ get a $10 million increase and the companion agency the Bureau of Justice Statistics get a $17 million boost. So far, the DOJ allocation for the year beginning Oct. 1 has passed through only the Senate Appropriations Committee, which did not grant NIJ a budget increase and voted to keep the research agency at $36 million.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.

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