Time For a 21st Century National Crime Commission?

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President Lyndon Baines Johnson appointed the 19-member Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice in 1967. Illustration by Kip via Flickr

President Lyndon Baines Johnson appointed the 19-member Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice in 1967. Illustration by Kip via Flickr

Does the nation need a new blue-ribbon commission to study the criminal justice system?

Some prominent members of the American Society of Criminology believe it does, and they are continuing to press for one, despite the idea’s failure to gain traction among lawmakers so far.

The last such panel was convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson a half-century ago, and produced a lengthy report that experts consider a landmark. Last year, the criminologists heard from U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), who along with several Republicans have proposed another commission.

The plan is yet to be debated, as Congress is near adjournment without moving on major criminal-justice legislation.

At the criminology group’s annual meeting that ended over the weekend in New Orleans, three former presidents of the organization spoke in a panel discussion on what subjects they believed a new commission should examine.

Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University, who served on the staff of the LBJ-era panel, said that while the crime picture has changed greatly in a half-century, “it’s clear that we need a new commission to address” current issues.

Blumstein cited the number of inmates in U.S. prisons and jails, which is more than two million today compared with only about 200,000 when the Johnson commission was meeting.

The 1960s panel preceded the “war on drugs,” which was a major contributor to what is now termed “mass incarceration,” as well as concern about the large number of people with mental illnesses who are encountered by police officers today and who often end up behind bars.

Roland Chilton of the University of Massachusetts, who also worked on the original commission, observed that, “We did not see mass incarceration coming” in the mid-1960s.

Chilton said one of the Johnson panel’s “blind spots” was overlooking changes in criminal law at the federal and state levels that would help fill existing prisons and lead to construction of many new ones.

The LBJ commission also preceded the increase in arrests and prosecutions that have disproportionately affected minorities, with African Americans behind bars at a much higher rate than their share of the population, Chilton said.

David Farrington of the University of Cambridge recommended that a crime commission undertake a new study of  “career criminals.” In the 1980s, the National Academy of Sciences sponsored studies that established what is now the well-known fact that a small number of lawbreakers commit a vast majority of the nation’s serious crimes.

Farrington said a 21st-century panel should review what is now known about such “career criminals,” especially what interventions have and have not worked to prevent them from continuing their lawbreaking careers, and how long prison sentences should be to maximize deterrence from further offending.

Critics contend that many sentences imposed today are far longer than needed and are excessively costly to taxpayers.

Farrington also suggested that law enforcers remain too focused on street crimes and do not fully recognize that many criminals have found it “easier to cheat and steal” on the Internet than to mug victims on the street.

Asked why a new crime commission is warranted when the national crime rate has dropped sharply since its height in the early 1990s, Blumstein said the focus now should be on problems within the criminal justice system, which is “screwed up in a number of ways.”

Blumstein noted that science plays a much more significant role in the criminal justice than it formerly did. The “simplistic view” that “locking people up means less crime” has largely been replaced by an emphasis on techniques like assessing the risk that particular suspects will commit more offenses.

A crime commission could help by analyzing the state of crime research, he said.

The criminology panel met only 11 days after Donald Trump won the presidential election Trump made rising crime rates in several big cities a major issue in his campaign, but it is not clear how his administration would view the idea of a new commission on the subject.

The idea has been supported by such leading Republicans as Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

Ted Gest is president of  Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


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