Criminology and Public Policy

B. Arguments in Favor of Participation

Individuals who favor greater involvement of social science in the justice policy process say that (a) policy should be based on the best available evidence, (b) avoiding involvement simply allows for false claims of evidence, (c) avoiding involvement allows gross injustices to continue, and (d) the work of criminology can influence agency practice without necessarily engaging directly in the legislative process. Again, we present each of these arguments in turn.

1. Policy Should Be Based on the Best Available Evidence

Policies should be based on the best available evidence, not on whatever political fancy rules the day. The only way to do that is to make the evidence available to policymakers. Thus, it falls to criminologists—and in particular, the professional organizations that represent them—to inform policymakers of the evidence. Precisely because the evidence is so often heavily nuanced, this must be done in a proactive and interactive way, not merely by publishing articles and letting the chips fall where they may. The professional associations must approach policymakers and speak to them in ways that assist policymakers in interpreting the evidence and translating that evidence into policy. Only then can policy become a reflection of evidence.

2. Staying Out of Policy Debates Allows Charlatans and False Claims of Evidence to Shape Them Instead

Avoiding involvement in the policy process opens the door for charlatans to take control on false claims of evidence. Washington, D.C., is filled with advocacy groups that seek to marshal evidence to support their favored policies. Often, the organization of evidence is quite slanted toward the favored policy position, ignoring studies that do not support the already-determined positions being promoted. This leads to a potpourri of policy strategies, often taking opposing positions but all citing evidence as the foundation for their claims. The role of criminology in such a setting is to help sort out the evidence, provide critical reviews of what is known, and help policymakers see which claims are most well supported by what is known and (of equal importance) what is “bunk.”

3. Remaining Removed From Policy Debates Leaves Gross Injustices Unaffected

To stay out of the policy process is to allow gross injustice to continue to dominate a field and to turn a blind eye to stupidity in policies. Many justice policies are, it is argued, known to be harmful. For the criminological community to remain mute when policies are proposed (or enacted) that are known to either make the problem worse or to result in untenable consequences is to tacitly participate in the perpetuation of injustice. Juvenile transfer laws, which result in charging juveniles as adults, are an excellent example, because research shows they fail to deter juvenile crime while resulting in worse treatment of juveniles under adult laws. To fail to speak out is to leave this mistreatment of youngsters unchallenged. Speaking out against unjust policies, from an informed and scientific point of view, seems an essential requirement of an ethical criminological profession. We would be shocked if, for example, the American Medical Association allowed policies to go forward without comment if they were demonstrably bad for the nation’s health. Why are we not shocked that criminologists do the same with crime policy?

4. There Are Good Reasons for Influencing Agency Practice

There are many ways that criminologists (and their work) can influence agency practice without having to get enmeshed in the legislative process. Joan Petersilia’s Center for Evidence-Based Corrections, housed in the University of California at Irvine, has just that mission in the California penal system. The National Institute of Corrections promulgates an annual agenda of technical assistance using some of the nation’s most well-established scholars as vehicles for improving the practice of criminal justice agencies. Many, if not most, academic criminal justice programs enjoy strong relationships with practicing criminal justice agencies, not only feeding them students but also helping them plan, implement, and evaluate new policies. To perform this kind of service is counted as a positive on the tenure and promotion requirements of many colleges and universities, and rightfully so.

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