Criminology and Public Policy

IV. Informing Public Policy

Thinking about criminology and policy today, we must begin by recognizing that the policymaking process is indeed a process, with a formal legislative course of action (bill writing, lobbying, testimony, etc.) and attendant side effects. We should also recognize that scientific opinion is actively sought in this process and that opinion will be located whether the field of criminology is comfortable with that fact or not.

A. Individual Participation

There are four ways that individual criminologists can take intentional action that is designed to influence policy: (1) thoroughly addressing policy implications of their research in their work, (2) working with policy-involved organizations, (3) directly inserting themselves in the policymaking process, and (4) engaging the media.

1. Addressing Policy Implications

Criminologists routinely seek to publish their research findings in traditional outlets (journals) and in doing so usually submit their work to the peer review process. At its best, this peer review process provides some level of assurance that the research used acceptable methods and that the findings are relatively sound. In other words, the purpose of the peer review process is to ensure that only research meeting established quality standards is published. When seeking publication in peer review publications, the focus is naturally on the research and the findings, and therefore authors are discouraged from straying too far from the facts. In other words, lengthy discussions about what the findings might mean for either policy or practice are considered polemic and are discouraged. One way in which criminologists might seek to influence policy would be through more directly addressing the policy implications of their work. Several journals have been established that explicitly focus on the policy relevance of criminological research. Although this represents a small step in the direction of informing public policy, our own experience in developing the journal Criminology & Public Policy suggests that if the field wishes to influence policy through its science, merely publishing the work of academic researchers in accessible venues will not be enough. Neither will it be enough to simply offer the media concisely written summaries of research findings with the policy prescriptions emphasized. It would seem that criminologists need to do more.

2. Working With Policy-Involved Organizations

A second way in which individual criminologists might become involved in the world of policy would be through working directly with policy-involved organizations. Agencies and organizations frequently seek to engage in collaborations with academic researchers to either evaluate specific programs or to put together proposals for new initiatives. A number of criminologists have made a substantial impact on criminal justice policy primarily through their working relationships with organizations and agencies that are directly involved in the criminal justice process. Joan Petersilia, for example, is well-known for her work with the California Department of Corrections and, through that work, has influenced correctional policy in California and beyond. Similarly, George Kelling, who is most well-known for his contribution to the “broken windows” model for policing, has worked closely with police departments over the years. Kelling’s work has led to the widespread adoption of the broken-windows model, not only in policing but also in other areas of the system, such as courts and corrections. In other words, working directly with the individuals responsible for administering criminal justice can have a substantial impact on policy.

3. Direct Engaging in the Legislative Process

The most direct way for criminologists to engage in the policy arena is through offering expert opinion at various points in the legislative process. Legislative bills do not simply become law: They are lobbied for, introduced, sent to committee, debated, and ultimately voted on. Criminologists could exert influence at many stages during this process. This influence could range from signing a petition, to sending a letter or a paper to legislators, to advising those who are drafting legislation and offering expert testimony during legislative debate. By far the most common way that criminologists insert themselves into the legislative process is through expert testimony. There is no systematic way that people are vetted for this testimony, but some criminologists are called on repeatedly to offer the legislature their understanding of the criminological wisdom of certain policies.

4. Engaging the Media

Experts are not only sought out for direct participation in the legislative process through testifying during hearings, they also are sought out for indirect participation in the policy process through engaging in debates that take place in the media. The power of this indirect participation to exert influence on the policy process should not be underestimated. Research suggests that the relationship among the media, politicians, and the public is a powerful one. In many ways, the media—driven primarily by ratings—reflect (and perhaps shape) public interests, priorities, and sentiment. With the advent of 24-hour news networks and the proliferation of Internet news sites, the supply of news outlets has grown dramatically. These news outlets often rely on “experts” to buttress their news stories. Research has demonstrated that the media will turn to “expert sources” to support their stories whether those sources are academic experts or not. Criminal justice officials, practitioners, and even laypeople serve as experts in the absence of academic researchers. Michael Welch and colleagues (Welch, Fenwick, & Roberts, 1998) reported that other sources to which the media might turn when criminologists are not available (e.g., practitioners and criminal justice officials) are typically more ideological in orientation. Practitioners and others tend to rely on anecdotal evidence (as opposed to research evidence) and tend to advocate for more “hard” approaches to the problem of crime. Criminologist Greg Barak (2007) argued that criminologists ought to engage more deliberately in “newsmaking criminology.” Barak argued that, by engaging the media, criminologists can help set and shape the crime policy agenda.

Despite the opportunities to engage in newsmaking criminology, relatively few criminologists engage the media with any frequency. There are a handful of criminologists (e.g., James Alan Fox and Larry Kobilinsky) who routinely make themselves available to local and national media outlets. Most others engage the media on more of an ad hoc basis, typically following an individual request from a local news agency.

There are clearly some downsides to engaging the media. The media rely heavily on overly simplistic explanations for complex phenomena. In an age of sound bites and easily digestible news, much of the story—and almost all of the nuances—gets lost. Most criminologists who have worked with themedia have tales to tell ofmisquotes or selective use of material that distort meaning.

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