Criminologist Clear’s Cautionary Notes On “What Works”


The “what works” trend in criminal justice–embracing anticrime measures proved by scientific research–can be a “kind of slavery to the present,” warns criminologist Todd Clear of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In an address concluding his term as president of the American Society of Criminology, Clear said, “More than anything else, we want to establish a firm foundation for new strategies in justice. Yet if the evidence-based movement means anything, it means that we want to avoid undertaking programs that are based on stereotypes and cherished pet theories about crime.”

When innovation takes place within a free field, unaccountable for an evidentiary base, Clear said, “We get programs that require men to wear pink underwear in jail and signs on the front lawns of people who have been convicted of irritating crimes.” Ignoring evidence about what works can produce “results that are worse than if we had done nothing in the first place.” Clear devoted much of his address, which will be published later by the criminology society, to discussing how a “what works” agenda could be applied to his field of specialty, corrections research. “By focusing its attention on programmatic solutions to the policy problem of mass incarceration,” Clear said, doing only “what works” could have “the perverse effect of forcing the solutions to ‘ignore’ a great deal of what we know about incarceration.”

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