Crime and Justice Trends in America: How We Got Here; Where We Go Next


The new Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota Law School has embarked on a daunting task: assessing the state of knowledge on crime and justice in the U.S. from 1975, projecting to 2025.

Last week, the institute, with support from the Robina Foundation and National Institute of Justice, assembled eight leading scholars to discuss key issues in the field: guns, policing, rehabilitation, sentencing, race and crime, deterrence, drug policy, and youth violence.

Some highlights of what they said follow. Eventually, the institute will publish their papers.

Michael Tonry of the University of Minnesota, who presided over the program, said a prime purpose was to understand trends over time. He presented a graph of crime data from the first modern period of rising crime rates in the U.S. in the 1960s, showing how three key categories–homicide, burglary and auto theft–had generally increased until the early 1990s, and now have receded to 1960s levels.

The project seeks to examine what we have learned about the factors behinds crime trends–and draw implications for the next decade.

Guns–Philip Cook, Duke University.

Cook separated knowledge on guns into four subjects: weapon type, how big the gun violence problem is, access to firearms, and whether widespread gun ownership deters crime.

On the first issue, the wide availability of guns in the U.S. “intensifies criminal violence,” he said.

In a variation on a well-known slogan, Cook said, “Guns don’t kill people–they just make it real easy.”

On the extent of the problem, Cook noted that the annual gun-death toll in the U.S. approximates the number of motor-vehicle deaths, when suicides are included. Guns are the leading cause of death for young black males.

The social cost “goes well beyond the immediate victims,” he said, noting that in places with high rates of gun violence, it can terrorize communities, reduce property values, and be a drag on economic development. Wide availability of guns can contribute to a rise in murder rates but not robberies and assaults.

Firearms may not be so easily available to criminals as is widely believed, he said, citing research showing a ‘very high transaction cost.” Law enforcement and the courts, not new government regulations, offer the best hope for reducing gun violence, in Cook’s view.

Police–Lawrence Sherman, Cambridge University and University of Maryland.

Sherman analyzed policing in terms of three functions: predicting crime, preventing it, and detecting it. There is a historic divide between police who “think fast,” using their personal experience to make “split-second decisions,” and what Sherman calls a more skeptical view that urges police to think more slowly, relying more on scientific-based evidence.

Sherman said it is a challenge to distinguish decisions that can be based on one officer's experience from the kind that require the far greater experience of corporate data. He urged a strategy of improving the results of police decisions.

The goal, he said, should be to increase the value added by police to building a safer society, “using fairer procedures, under a rule of law and democratic control.”

His vision would send far fewer people to prison, with far more offenders supervised by police in community-based diversion from prosecution. Sherman outlined a plan for “restorative policing” to achieve remorse, repentance and reintegration, often with reconciliation and restitution.

He argued that “the evidence suggests that diversion to restorative justice will greatly increase the odds that an arrested offender will be held accountable,” when compared to criminal prosecutions—in which cases are dismissed at a high rate for lack of evidence and defendants fail to appear.

Rehabilitation–Francis Cullen, University of Cincinnati.

Cullen recalled the much-simplified contention of Robert Martinson in 1974 that “nothing works” in the rehabilitation of criminals (a conclusion widely circulated via an interview with the late Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes.”

In fact, he said, current evidence shows that rehabilitation does reduce recidivism—some methods more than others.

Cullen is an advocate of an “RNR” (Risk, Need, Responsivity) model proposed by Canadian experts that offers “core principles of effective intervention and the technology to implement them; it also produced positive treatment outcomes.”

Analyzing public opinion surveys, Cullen finds that explanations for crime that include ineffective parenting, family breakdown, exposure to delinquent peers, neighborhood disorganization, poverty, and unemployment “provide the public with the logic for endorsing—which they do in large percentages—correctional rehabilitation and human-services.”

Many jurisdictions now are trying to reduce their prison populations, he said, adding that if officials are going to place offenders into the community, they will have to “do something with them.”

“Simple parole or probation is not enough” and offenders need treatment programming, Cullen says.

Cullen also calls for an “expansion of early intervention programs, especially because knifing off a criminal career can save an enormous amount of human suffering and of government resources.”

Sentencing–Michael Tonry, University of Minnesota.

Tonry separated sentencing policies in the last century into four eras: indeterminate sentencing (judges’ leaving many decisions up to corrections authorities), 1930-75; sentencing reform, 1975-84; “tough on crime,” 1985-96; and “equilibrium” from 1997 to the present.

Tonry agreed with Cullen that a careful look at the results of public opinion surveys show much support for rehabilitation programs for inmates even back in the 1980s. Meanwhile, liberal politicians largely abandoned efforts to promote humane policies and resisted or supported tougher sentencing.

For example, mandatory minimum sentence laws of the 1970s typically required one or two year prison terms. Those in the 1980s often required minimums measured in decades. Three-strikes laws enacted in 1994-96 required minimums of 25 years or life.

More recently, developments like the flattening out of the prison population, some moderation of harsh laws, and the emergence of less punitive programs aiming at rehabilitation of offenders could signal a major change of direction.

Or, if the recession abates, the march toward continued or greater toughness could resume.

Race and Crime–Jeffrey Fagan, Columbia University.

Fagan began by wondering why many criminologists don’t talk about racial issues, even when it is clear there are many racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Some may rationalize that disparities can be explained away by the fact that crime rates are higher for blacks and Latinos. Fagan traces the history of race and the U.S. criminal justice system back to “slave patrols” of colonial days. Later there was “weird science” that suggested the racial inferiority of minorities.

There were racial factors behind the first major U.S. anti-narcotics law, the Harrison Act of 1914, and the Kerner Commission report on the many urban riots of 1964-68 exposed the racial animosity of primarily white police forces toward black inner city residents.

Today, the prison population is disproportionately minority, and so are arrests. Fagan cited research showing that while young males of all racial and ethnic groups used drugs at comparable rates, the likelihood of arrest was twice as high or more for blacks and Latinos.

Non-white suspects are more likely than others to be handcuffed, searched, have weapons pointed at them, and be subject to officer force.

Some of the racial disparities in criminal justice are due to overt bias; others can be blamed on factors like “social organization of crime” (for example, laws targeting gangs) and structured sentencing like laws setting higher penalties for crack cocaine–more often used by blacks then powder cocaine.

Deterrence–Daniel Nagin, Carnegie-Mellon University.

Nagin said there is substantial evidence that the certainty of punishment substantially deters criminal behavior.

Measures with this effect include increasing the visibility of the police by hiring more officers and/or allocating existing officers in ways that raise the risk of apprehension, such as “hot spots” policing.

They also include the use of certain, moderate punishments in the form of short periods of incarceration to enforce court-ordered fine payments or conformance with court-ordered conditions of probation or parole.

Nagin also believes there is little evidence that increasing the length of already long prison sentences leads to deterrent effects that are large enough to justify their social and economic costs.

This includes “Three Strikes and You're Out” and other forms of mandatory minimum sentencing such as life without the possibility of parole. There is little evidence of a specific deterrent effect arising from the experience of imprisonment compared with noncustodial sanctions like probation.

Instead, the evidence suggests that that re-offending is either unaffected or increased. Since policing is relatively more effective as a deterrent than are other parts of the criminal-justice process, police should retain a larger share of declining government budgets, Nagin believes.

Drug Policy–Peter Reuter, University of Maryland.

The U.S. has the western world’s worst drug problem, even though the problem has declined overall in the last decade, Reuter said.

Too many addicts are unable to get treatment, and the treatment that they do get is not of good quality. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to incarcerate many drug users. The presidents of Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico, all of which have been severely harmed by drug related violence fueled by the American drug market, have said it is worth considering the legalization of drugs in their countries.

There are many good arguments for legalization in the U.S., but is not clear whether legalizing drugs would benefit the nation overall; in any case, a 2010 Gallup poll 2010 found fewer than 10 percent of respondents favoring legalization of cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, or methamphetamine.

The concept that drug addiction is a brain disease is gaining support, and it is a credible basis for sending criminally active addicts to treatment rather than the criminal justice system.

Attitudes toward marijuana have changed substantially in the last four decades as tracked by Gallup. The percentage of the public favoring legalization of the drug rose sharply from 1995 (25 percent) to 2012 (50 percent). This may reflect the fact that a number of states allowed medical use of marijuana. In 2010 a poorly formulated California initiative got 46.5 percent of the vote.

This year, better-constructed initiatives are going to voters in Colorado and Washington.

Youth Violence–Franklin E. Zimring, University of California at Berkeley.

Zimring offered a “cautionary tale” about projecting juvenile crime rates. Based on rises in reported youth crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, scholars like John DiIulio and James Alan Fox projected that if current trends continued, the number of arrests for juvenile homicide might reach 5,000 or more–creating by 2005 what DiIulio termed a generation of “superpredators.”

This proved to be a “catastrophic error.” Zimring said.

The actual number of juvenile homicide arrests turned out to be 1,073. The drop in juvenile crime numbers in the 1990s prompted John Donohue and Steven Levitt to propose what Zimring termed a misguided theory that the growth in abortions after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling contributed to a decrease in juvenile offending later.

The mistaken projections about juvenile crime growth encouraged ineffective policy changes such as states’ enacting laws providing for trying more juvenile defendants as adults, Zimring said.

What did not happen was a building boom in juvenile detention facilities because policymakers learned that crime was actually decreasing before they could vote for new institutions.

Zimring expects juvenile homicide rates between now and 2025 to track adult homicide rates.

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

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