The purpose of this research paper was to review the position of criminology and criminal justice relative to the world of public policy. Despite an obvious relevance, the field of criminology has historically exhibited a reluctance to engage in questions of public policy in any systematic or concerted manner. Although there are some notable individual exceptions, as a group criminologists have been reticent to participate in the process. Criminological associations have expressed even more reservations regarding such participation.
Criminology would seem to have a natural connection to public policy. Many, if not most, of the questions that criminologists seek to answer directly or indirectly impact questions of public policy. Criminologists seek to understand the nature and extent of crime, to explain why people commit crime, and to advance knowledge as to how crime might be prevented. Policymakers seek to address an array of social problems, including the problem of crime. Despite this seemingly natural connection, the field of criminology has had an uneasy relationship with public policy and has had somewhat less of a direct effect on matters of public policy than some might expect.
There have been some notable instances in which criminological research has impacted public policy. For example, Lawrence Sherman’s randomized field study in Minneapolis (often referred to as the Minnesota Domestic Violence Study), which focused on policing domestic violence, led to widespread reforms in the way that police departments responded to domestic violence calls (Sherman et al., 1999). The work of George Kelling and his colleagues as they developed the “broken windows” model of policing similarly led to important changes in police strategies, first in New York City and later in other major jurisdictions. More recently, the research of Joan Petersilia (2008) has led to the adoption of “earned discharge” parole in California. Although there are a number of instances in which criminological work has directly impacted policy, much of the policy-relevant criminological research has had little to no measurable effect on public policy. This lack of effect can be attributed in part to the reluctance among some academics to engage directly in the policy arena. In a provocative essay lamenting criminology’s irrelevance, James Austin (2003) argued that “in terms of having any effect on criminal justice policy, there is little evidence that any criminologist’s career has made much of a difference” (p. 558).
Although criminology’s policy impact has been largely inconsequential to date, there have been renewed calls for a policy-oriented approach in criminology. Leading criminologist Ronald Clarke (2004) proposed that the field of criminology be reconfigured as a field of “crime science” that has as its main focus studying crime in ways that inform policy. Prominent criminological theorists David Garland and Richard Sparks (2000) suggested that the coming generation of criminology be one that takes the problem of crime as a serious concern, with a renewed commitment to reducing the impact of crime on everyday lives.