Can a Police “Nudge” Stop Repeat Criminality?


Police officers should be trying more creative ways to get criminals to stop breaking the law.

That was a leading theme of the annual Jerry Lee Symposium on Evidence-Based Crime Policy, which concluded yesterday in Washington, D.C.

Jim Bueermann, President of the Police Foundation, and criminologist John Laub, former director of the National Institute of Justice, discussed ways that police can expand their roles beyond the traditional responses to crime.

They suggested law enforcement could play a larger role in direct intervention with lawbreakers to help them return successfully to society.

Bueermann and Laub embraced the “nudge” theory made popular in a book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who described how people can be nudged to make better choices about how they live their lives.

A former police chief in Redlands, CA, Bueermann admitted that it would be necessary to “change the way police think” in order to have them spend more time in prisoner re-entry programs.

Police for example could become involved in parenting classes, drug courts, and programs for at-risk youths, or serve as school resource officers, he said.

Such activities, he observed, represent an extension of the kind of community policing already practiced by many police departments around the nation, and would “enhance public confidence in the police.”

Laub, who brought Bueermann into the National Institute of Justice as a visiting fellow, explained how the “nudge” theory fits in with his own long-term research on “why offenders stop offending.”

As Laub describes it, based on periodic interviews over many years with people who have committed crimes, key “turning points” —particularly marriage but also jobs, military service, and neighborhood changes—influence people to stop committing crimes.

A typical statement of an offender interview is “I was a hell raiser, now I’m a family man,” said Laub, who returned this year from his Justice Department service to the criminology faculty of the University of Maryland.

The Bueermann-Laub concept was generally endorsed by criminologist Lawrence Sherman of Britain’s Cambridge University and the University of Maryland, who predicted a “brave new world of police managing individual offenders.”

Such an approach is already underway experimentally in the United Kingdom.

Sherman is involved with a new College of Policing in Britain which, he writes, is “modeled in part on such professional bodies as those for physicians and engineers” and aims “to advance professional knowledge by using rigorously scientific testing for recommending police policy.”

Other speakers at the symposium talked about ways to get police to base more of their work on scientifically-proved methods.

John Firman, research director at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said his organization maintains a Research Advisory Committee that works to “mainstream” evidence-based practices to the 18,000 police agencies spread across the United States.

Laurie Robinson, former Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Justice Programs, urged other police associations, including police unions, to get more involved in discussing policing advances that probably work to reduce crime.

Robinson also urged her former department to reinstate training conferences that have fallen under Washington’s budget-cutting axe of late, saying the reduction in such events is “crippling the ability of the Justice Department to be a leader in this field when leadership is badly needed.”

The Lee symposium is sponsored by Jerry Lee, a Philadelphia radio broadcaster who helped found criminal justice research centers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Cambridge.

The University of Maryland and George Mason University in Virginia co-sponsored this week’s conference.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington DC bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes reader comments.

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