Criminology and Public Policy

III. Criminology, Criminal Justice, and Public Policy

Today, there is a debate within criminology regarding whether, and how much, criminology (and its younger sibling, criminal justice) should seek to influence crime policy. Some have embraced a proactive policy approach, while others remain quite notably opposed.

A. Arguments Against Participation

Individuals who are opposed to a policy approach in the field say that (a) criminal justice is inherently political and that this politicization should be a matter of concern, (b) “evidence” in the field of criminology and criminal justice is not only nuanced but also constantly changing and therefore too fluid to be of much use, and (c) there are honest academic disputes among respected social scientists and that these disputes should be taken seriously. We present each of these arguments in turn.

1. Criminal Justice Is Inherently Political

Criminal justice involves partisan interests, political pressure, and compromise in ways that some people say are incompatible with science. These opponents would argue that politics distorts scientific inquiry, especially when the results of science are politically unpopular. Take for example, the complicated relationship between crime and incarceration. For at least the past three decades, the war on crime (and the war on drugs and, more recently, the war on terror) have involved a get-tough orientation to addressing the problem of crime. Driven in part by increasing crime rates and in part by political and practical expediency, current strategies for addressing the problem of crime have led to unprecedented growth in the size of prison populations. Incarceration has, in some respects, been advanced as the one-size-fits-all answer to the problem of crime. Social science evidence suggests, however, that incarceration is at best limited in its ability to prevent or control crime and in some important ways problematic for crime prevention.Yet criminological research highlighting the limited impact of prison expansion policies is politically unpopular, because politicians seeking to address the concerns of their constituents see few other politically viable options.

Similarly, when studies conducted by criminologists kept finding that boot camps featuring shock incarceration as an environmental intervention did not work, a chasm grew between the research community and the policy community. Opening new boot camps across the country remained a priority of the Clinton Administration throughout Clinton’s tenure, even as study after study uncovered disappointing results. The main reaction of the policy community was to increase funding for studies of boot camps, possibly in the hopes that a new set of findings might someday emerge.

2. Criminological Evidence Is Nuanced and Ever Changing

There is a related problem of the nature of academic evidence itself. The evidence generated through social science research is almost never definitive and almost always nuanced, yet to make evidence palatable for the policy process seems to require watering it down and removing the crucial nuances of scientific “fact.” There is a tendency for those nuances to get lost during the political process. Studies of the recidivism rate of people convicted of sexual crimes shows that the risk represented by this subgroup is complex, depending on personal background and type of offense. These nuances are typically forgotten in the policy-writing process, however, and widely varying types of sex crimes are treated as identical for purposes of legal action.

Moreover, criminological evidence is constantly changing, suggesting that the knowledge within the field is a lot more dynamic than policy about crime is able to be. At one time, for example, there was a strong consensus that poverty “caused” crime, but that view has changed markedly as new evidence on the causes of crime emerge.

Nobody should be surprised if the evidentiary foundation of the field is dynamic rather than static; the purpose of criminological scholarship, after all, is to produce new evidence. To build policy on “facts” that may well be contravened by new evidence is to erect crime policy on a bed of shifting sands.

3. Academic Disputes Among Criminologists Show Why Policy Positions Are Problematic

There are honest disputes among serious scientists about what really works and how well. The death penalty offers a good example. Although there is a growing consensus around the utility of the death penalty—with most criminologists arguing that it either does not deter crime or deters no more than a lengthy prison sentence—some criminologists continue to argue that pursuing the death penalty is worthwhile. Recently, for example, a series of empirical papers written by economists suggesting that the death penalty reduces the rate of homicide have challenged the field’s widely accepted consensus that it does not have that effect.

Serious academic disputes exist around all of the most controversial or contentious criminological debates (with gun control offering yet another example). Perhaps more surprising is that these serious academic debates also exist around questions that are more fundamental to the field. The “crime decline” experienced across the United States from the latter part of the 1990s represents the most sustained decline in crime rates in at least 50 years. Its cause has been the subject of much criminological thought, as some of the most respected criminologists in the field have advanced theories and offered evidence to support those theories. Some have argued that more aggressive policing and/or a change in the orientation of policing contributed to the crime decline. Others have argued that more strict control and regulation of guns have reduced crime (in particular, violent crime). Many of these expert opinions conflict with one another and such debates just highlight how little we actually know for sure about crime, its causes, and its prevention. As any student of criminology can tell you, there are easily as many theories of crime as there are types of crime.

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