The future of America's criminal justice system hinges on the debate between lawmakers who support evidence-based policies and those who believe in the “tough on crime” ideology, according to Alfred Blumstein, a leading criminologist, and Laurie Robinson, a former U.S. Assistant Attorney General.
Robinson and Blumstein were joined by moderator James Burch II — an Assistant Director at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives —for an online discussion Tuesday hosted by the National Criminal Justice Association.
Though reform has been a focus of the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, Blumstein said there's no guarantee that progress in changing the policies that made America the world leader in incarceration will last through a different administration.
“There's a tension between evidence-based and ideology-based policy, and the environment that we're living in is a clear product of that,” said Blumstein, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
He added that policies have to persuade those with a “naïve” view that “punishing more will reduce crime.”
Among the challenges facing criminal justice reformers and searchers is a paucity of timely data, said Robinson, a professor at George Mason University. Policymakers often have to make decisions about today's issues, armed only with information compiled years ago.
“When the Attorney General was recently talking about heroin problems, he was talking about data that was years old,” Robinson said.
Editor's Note: In April, an investigation by The Crime Report found widespread media reporting of new heroin “epidemic” to be largely unfounded. For that report, click HERE.
Inmates with mental health issues are particularly affected by the “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice, Robinson said.
She pointed to an investigation by The New York Times, published July 14, that found rampant physical abuse of mentally ill inmates by corrections officers at New York City's Rikers Island jail.
“We need criminal justice working with the health system, with the mental health system, and with public officials, because they're the ones who can provide the money for this approach,” Robinson said.
The presence of inmates with mental health issues is exacerbated by the fact that resources and staff at many prisons are strained by overcrowding, Robinson said.
She also noted a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts that found that 22 percent of inmates “max out,” serving full terms.
“They're going out with no supervision and no services, and who are these people? They're the worst offenders,” Robinson said.
For inmates who are released without serving full terms, reentry programs have been among the most highly touted reform initiatives, and Blumstein said they could be a key element in reducing the nation's prison population.
But he said he's wary of small-scale successes.
“We've seen lots of reentry efforts, many of which, when first initiated, get a very positive evaluation, but as replicated those positive evaluations start to shrink,” Blumstein said.
Graham Kates is Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report. Kates can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates. He welcomes comments from readers.