Verdict Still Out on Evidence-Based Crime-Fighting


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Official Washington is increasingly basing anti-crime policy on evidence-based solutions, but “I'm not sure we're there yet,” Noah Bookbinder, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy's main adviser on criminal justice issues, told the annual Jerry Lee Crime Prevention Symposium this week on Capitol Hill.

Bookbinder was one of seven speakers on a panel moderated by Laurie Robinson, until recently the Justice Department's Assistant Attorney general for Justice Programs.

The other speakers generally agreed that tough economic times are prompting a new look at spending priorities at all government levels, and that scientific evidence of a program's success or failure may play a part in whether it survives a budget cut.

One problem is that solid evidence is lacking on many anticrime programs, so there may be no good way of determining if they are worth funding.

Tim Burgess, a former police officer in Seattle who heads the committee overseeing public safety, said there have been good evaluations of only 4 of the 62 crime prevention programs in the city. Citizens are demanding more accountability, he said.

Bernard Melekian, director of the Justice Department's COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) program, predicted that national or regional economic difficulties would “dramatically change law enforcement in ways that would have been unthinkable” in past years.

He called for new ways for police to respond to non-emergency calls and he forecasts that some areas will adopt consolidated, regional police forces.

Budget cuts offer ‘opportunity’

Bookbinder, the Senate staff member, said that reduced availability of federal aid for crime-fighting “presents a real opportunity to focus on programs that have showed results.”

The outlook is somewhat muddled, he said, because some members of Congress oppose any federal funding for state and local anti-crime projects.

Three criminologists on the panel—John Laub, director of the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, Lawrence W. Sherman of the University of Maryland and University of Cambridge, and David Weisburd of George Mason University—expressed some cautious optimism that criminal-justice practitioners would become better informed about useful research.

Laub was not confident that the volume of useful research would increase, observing that some “academics are writing more about more about less and less.”

Earlier in the program, attendees heard about research results in several key criminal-justice areas.

Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel and Police Sgt. Renee Mitchell reported on a “hot spots” policing experiment that found both serious crime and calls for police service had declin ed in places where police officers visited crime “hot spots” for 12 to 16 minutes at various intervals.

Charlotte Gill of George Mason University talked about what research has shown about community-oriented policing: essentially it has had no significant impact on crime but has improved police “legitimacy” and citizen satisfaction.

Lawrence Sherman and Barak Ariel of the University of Cambridge reviewed the evidence on electronic monitoring of crime offenders, concluding that it has a positive but limited effect on re-offending. The various studies they looked it involved about 100,000 offenders who had been on electronic monitoring an average of 58 days.

The conference also heard from British Member of Parliament Nick Herbert, whose presentation can be seen here.

The Jerry Lee Symposium was sponsored by the Jerry Lee Center on Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Maryland, George Mason University, and the University of Cambridge.

Ted Gest is president of Crime and Justice Journalists, and Washington-based contributing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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