Is It Time for Criminologists to Step Outside the Ivory Tower?

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Justice For All march, Wash., DC, December 2014. Photo by fuseboxradio via Flickr

Polls show that Americans are more polarized than at any point in the past quarter-century. Partisanship now plagues virtually everything we do, even a once-unifying cultural ritual like watching football on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Lost in the struggle between our kneeling athletes and our tweeting president is the original motivation for the protest, namely, bringing attention to injustices in the legal system.

Erik Luna. Photo courtesy The Cato Institute

Ironically, criminal justice reform presents an issue—perhaps the only issue today—on which the left and the right can unite. And, as it turns out, the academic world may be able to help, as demonstrated by a newly released report from a distinguished group of criminal justice scholars.

The story goes something like this.

Recent years have witnessed otherwise strange bedfellows bunking together to improve our criminal justice system. On what other topic do groups like the ACLU and the NAACP join hands with organizations such as Americans for Tax Reform and the Charles Koch Institute?

In our nation’s capital, Republicans and Democrats came together to correct grotesque disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing, for instance, and pending bills would address such issues as America’s broken bail process, ruthless mandatory penalties, and recidivism by former inmates.

In truth, the most remarkable bipartisan action is occurring outside of the Beltway, where states such as Texas (yes, Texas) are leading the way in top-to-bottom criminal justice reforms.

Although advocates may have different motivations—political, social, economic, religious—they agree that something needs to be done about criminal justice in America.

Indeed, we all have reasons to support reform.

In an era of overcriminalization, everyone is a potential criminal, pursuant to penal codes that have become bloated under the mistaken belief that every conceivable social ill is a proper subject of the criminal sanction.

The law’s execution is troubling as well. Negative experiences between police and minorities may not only violate civil liberties, but can also alienate entire communities and leave them less willing to cooperate with law enforcement, which then impedes police efforts to do an already difficult job and to assist those communities most in need.

As for people caught up in the pretrial and trial process—whether as defendants, victims, or concerned family members—the entire operation can be baffling and dehumanizing. On occasion, America’s hyper-adversarial system and some shady evidentiary practices can generate the ultimate injustice: the wrongful conviction of innocent individuals.

All told, taxpayers pay billions of dollars each year to arrest, prosecute, and sentence millions of fellow Americans, oftentimes with little benefit but many attendant costs. For people of faith, disproportionate punishment and consequences that extend post-release defy the possibility of redemption, a core tenet of Christianity (and other religions).

In turn, placing lifelong socio-economic disabilities on former offenders runs counter to one the most endearing images of our nation: America as a land of second chances.

Despite these and other good reasons to support criminal justice reform, the movement still faces a daunting task. In particular, a gap in knowledge exists among government actors and the general public. Many officials and most ordinary people tend to be unaware of the character and quantity of crime, the scope of criminal law, the rules of criminal procedure, the reality of pretrial and trial proceedings, the nature of sentencing schemes and their severity, and the lasting consequences of conviction and incarceration.

This lack of appreciation is hardly surprising given the sheer breadth and complexity of American criminal justice. What is needed is a means to help people grasp the system’s workings and its many, interrelated problems, so Americans and their representatives can have a full and thoughtful discussion of possible solutions.

This is where academics have a role to play. After all, their work is fundamentally all about reform. Criminal justice scholars spend most of their time studying, critically analyzing, and writing at length about crime, punishment, and processes, with an eye toward providing greater understanding of the criminal justice system and proposing changes to that system.

Traditionally, however, academic authors have written to themselves—that is, to other criminal justice scholars—not to the public or even to policymakers, professionals, or policy analysts interested in criminal justice. As a result, academic scholarship is inaccessible in the sense that it is dense, filled with jargon, and, as a general rule, painful to read and unfriendly to normal human beings.

Oftentimes scholarly works are physically inaccessible as well, published by academic presses and journals and buried in libraries or hidden behind paywalls.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between scholarship on the books and legal reform on the ground, a loose-knit group of well over 100 scholars has issued a four-volume report titled Reforming Criminal Justice, which takes on some of the most pressing issues in criminal justice today.

Broken down into individual chapters, each authored by a top scholar in the relevant field, the report covers dozens of topics within the areas of criminalization, policing, pretrial and trial processes, sentencing, incarceration, and release. The goal of each chapter is to increase both professional and public understanding of the subject matter, to facilitate an appreciation of the relevant scholarly literature and the need for reform, and to offer potential solutions.

Today, the United States is unique among Western nations in terms of the scale and punitiveness of its criminal justice system. Academics can’t directly change this: We’re teachers and scholars, not elected officials or other policymakers.

But, as the report hopes to show, the academic world can enlighten the public and their representatives and help guide reform efforts through the insights of those whose lifework is the study of criminal justice.

See Also: Federal Sentencing Reform Alive, Senators Insist (TCR Oct 27, 2017)

Erik Luna is the Amelia D. Lewis Professor of Constitutional & Criminal Law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He is the project director of the Academy for Justice and the editor of its four-volume report, Reforming Criminal Justice. He welcomes readers’ comments.

6 thoughts on “Is It Time for Criminologists to Step Outside the Ivory Tower?

  1. I am a 37-year law enforcement veteran, serving the past 12 years as a police chief. I have told my colleagues and others for years that common sense legislation, court rulings, case law and prosecutorial decisions would occur if members of those professions made a concerted effort learn what law enforcement on the street really looks like-not how they think it should based on their roles in the criminal justice system. Going on ride-alongs, attending citizen police academies, participating in shoot-don’t shoot scenarios are just some examples of how to broaden their perspectives regarding application of the law. Conflicts of interest concerns can be addressed by doing these activities in jurisdictions where they do not work. My comments are not intended that the Constitutional Rights of others should be ignored nor compromised.

  2. I applaud Professor Luna’s efforts to make criminological knowledge relevant to much-needed criminal justice reform. But the current structure of academic work does not reward the application of theory and research to the practical problems faced by those working in and processed by the criminal justice system. Until universities change their reward systems, most academicians will shy away from getting their hands dirty in the day-t0-day business of criminal justice. Fortunately, there are a few exceptions. I would also urge Professor Luna to broaden his array of experts to include functionaries such as victim advocates, prosecutors, defense attorneys, prison wardens, and others who live and breathe the business of criminal justice. Academics don’t have a monopoly on knowledge, and one could argue that if there were going to make themselves relevant to criminal justice reform, they would have done so already. One can learn a lot from talking to victims, offenders, and practitioners – perhaps more so than from those who spend their time in the ivory tower.

  3. While I appreciate the efforts of Erik Luna, I think he fell short of delivering the intended product. After reading several of the articles I have my doubts whether the authors actually did step out of the “Ivory Towers” other than to go to Starbucks. The prescriptions seem to be shallow and vague, and pretty safe. If you want to put pragmatic scholarship out to practitioners who will need to get out of the office and hit the streets with the “street level bureaucrats” as Lipsky suggests. If you really want to bridge theory and praxis you need to understand the praxis part. While I agree with Chief Butler, I’ll argue that practitioners need to open up to theory as well there needs to be some common ground for both.

  4. I’m a criminal justice professor with 20 years policing experience. It amazes me how so many “criminologists” have never experienced crime from the street level. No wonder there’s such a disconnect. Two suggestions: a) we need colleges encouraging more professors — psychologists, sociologists, criminologists — to get their hands dirty; b) a national think tank, as was done in 1967 with the President’s Crimes Commission: The Challenge of Crime in an Free Society.

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