Criminology and Public Policy

B. Organizational Participation

It is one thing for criminologists, acting as private citizens, to insert themselves into the policy process. It is quite another for formal associations, such as the American Society of Criminology (ASC) or theAcademy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS), to take formal organizational action in this arena. The main way these organizations have, to date, been active in the policy process is by a very limited role, such as supporting the work of the specialist scientific group Consortium of Social ScienceAssociations. However, that is now changing. For about 5 years, the ACJS has had a public policy section that has a presence in Washington, D.C., and writes a newsletter about what is happening in the politics of crime. Also, the ASC recently contracted with a firm in DC to strengthen its voice on Capitol Hill.

Levels of organizational participation in the policy process, in order of “comfort” for the field, might include the following:

  1. Advocating for the best possible quality of crime and justice statistics
  2. Advocating for scientific peer review process for funding crime and justice research
  3. Advocating for large crime research budgets
  4. Commissioning the writing of white papers that summarize what is known about a topic
  5. Supporting expert testimony before legislative bodies
  6. Vetting experts to testify about specific legislation
  7. Taking formal organizational positions in crime and justice matters

These are all strategies that are variously taken by one or another of other professional societies (the American Medical Association, American Bar Association, American Sociological Association), and so there is precedent for each of these kinds of participation by criminology. We now briefly review each type of participation.

1. Advocating for Quality Criminal Justice Data

Quite a bit of the work of criminologists draws on official data collected by various federal agencies. The Federal Bureau of Investigation collects and compiles crime data through the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and the National Incident Based Reporting System. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, alone and in collaboration with the Bureau of the Census, also collects criminal justice data, including, among many others, the National Crime Victimization Survey, the National Corrections Reporting Program, and the National Judicial Reporting Program. Similarly, a number of other federal agencies undertake substantial data collection efforts that address criminal justice issues. These data are used by criminologists as they conduct their research. As is always the case, the quality of the data will, in large part, dictate the quality of the research and the reliability of the findings. Criminologists therefore have a vested interest in ensuring the quality and integrity of these data. Just as important, these data are also sometimes used by the media and unscrupulous criminologists in ways that are seen as problematic by many in the field. Some of the ways in which UCR data have been used—for instance, to rank the nation’s safest or most dangerous cities—are particularly troubling because they rely on overly simplistic rankings of the raw data. Individually or collectively, criminologists might advocate for the collection of quality criminal justice data and for appropriate and responsible use of official data.

2. Advocating for Scientific Peer Review Processes

Just as some of the data used by criminologists as they conduct their research is generated by government agencies, some of the research in the area of crime and justice is funded by those very same agencies. The National Institute of Justice is one of the major funding sources for academic criminological research. The National Institutes of Health; its subsidiary, the National Institute on Drug Abuse; the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; and the National Science Foundation also fund research in the areas of criminology and criminal justice. Although the amount of funding set aside for research might vary across presidential administrations, the need for quality controls in the selection of projects identified for funding should not. To that end, academic criminologists seeking to influence public policy sometimes actively involve themselves in the funding selection processes by advocating for peer review processes and, in some instances, serving as peer reviewers.

3. Advocating for Research Budgets

Criminologists and criminological organizations have at times advocated on behalf of agencies and bureaus involved in the data collection and research funding enterprises. When local, state, and federal budgets are tight (or in crisis), the tendency has been to reduce or eliminate research funding. Some people would argue this strategy is shortsighted because criminological research has the capacity to address fundamental questions of public policy. The Consortium of Social Science Associations serves as a national umbrella organization that promotes social science research. Criminology is quite well represented in that lobbying group.

4. Commissioning White Papers

Professional criminological organizations might also engage in the commissioning of white papers that summarize what we collectively know about an issue based on the accumulated evidence. This is particularly important because one of the major barriers to effective participation in the policy-making process has been the issue of accessibility. Research findings in the field of criminology typically appear in academic journals and books written for academic audiences. These journals and books are frequently loaded with relatively advanced statistical methods, complicated descriptions of the findings, and no small amount of academic jargon. In other words, the findings are not particularly accessible to a general audience or to policymakers. Moreover, the findings often represent a small piece of a much larger puzzle. Findings from one study typically build on findings from previously published work. Experts in the field may be familiar with the accumulated body of evidence, whereas those in a general audience would typically not be. White papers can draw on and more concisely summarize the collection of research findings in a particular area.

An annual publication, Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, published by the University of Chicago Press and edited by Michael Tonry, does this for research findings across a number of areas. The National Academy of Sciences also has commissioned works that synthesize and summarize the state of knowledge within a particular area (perhaps most notably, deterrence and gun control). White papers commissioned by professional associations could be drafted in response to pressing issues of public policy. These reports could adeptly synthesize what criminology as a field has to offer in the form of contributions to our understanding of the issue. The white papers fall short of offering official positions and instead provide information relevant to and necessary for making informed decisions around policy issues.

The ASC has experimented with the white-paper process, but not very successfully. After two white papers were written on incarceration policy, the ASC’s executive board decided to end the process because it was deemed not to fit very well with the way the organization works. White papers were seen as too politically controversial to be sustainable by the organization, and no easy process for vetting the papers throughout the whole organization was available.

5. Supporting Expert Testimony Before Legislative Bodies

Another way professional organizations could become more directly involved in the policy arena would be through supporting expert testimony before legislative bodies. Most bills that are introduced in legislatures are subject to some debate before they come to a vote. All sorts of legislation related to crime and justice policy makes its way through this process without any input from criminologists or criminal justice experts. Professional organizations might provide funding or simply encourage their memberships to more actively involve themselves in the legislative process.

6. Vetting Experts to Testify About Specific Legislation

Professional organizations—and in particular their executive boards—might vet experts to testify about specific legislation. For example, if legislation proposing stricter limits on access to guns were up for discussion, professional organizations could solicit the participation of known experts in the field, perhaps carefully selecting experts representing a variety of viewpoints. The criminological organization could establish a stable of people who have been identified as having unassailable expertise in given areas and then promote their testimony on legislative matters as they arise.

7. Taking Formal Organizational Positions

Although some professional organizations (e.g., the American Bar Association) quite routinely announce official organizational positions on issues of importance to their field, the two largest professional criminological associations—the ASC and the ACJS—have been more reluctant to take formal (e.g., official) positions on matters of criminal justice policy. To date, the ASC has officially taken official policy positions on just two issues: (1) the death penalty and (2) the irresponsible use of crime data. In 1989, the ASC issued its first official policy position proclaiming opposition to the death penalty:

Be it resolved that because social science research has demonstrated the death penalty to be racist in application and social science research has found no consistent evidence of crime deterrence through execution, The American Society of Criminology publicly condemns this form of punishment, and urges its members to use their professional skills in legislatures and courts to seek a speedy abolition of this form of punishment. (American Society of Criminology, n.d.)

Although the ASC’s official position on the death penalty reflects the wider membership’s general opposition to capital punishment, not all members support that view; neither would all members agree with the official position taken. In part because of concern about announcing official positions in a field in which there are notable differences of opinion, the ASC’s death penalty position stood as the sole policy position for nearly 20 years until, in 2007, the ASC board voted to announce a second official policy position, regarding the irresponsible use of crime data. Amid growing concern that official crime data were being misused and misrepresented (particularly in the media), in November 2007, the executive board of the ASC took an official policy position with regard to the use of UCR data:

Be it resolved, that the Executive Board of the American Society of Criminology opposes the use of Uniform Crime Reports data to rank American cities as “dangerous” or “safe” without proper consideration of the limitations of these data. Such rankings are invalid, damaging, and irresponsible. They fail to account for the many conditions affecting crime rates, the mismeasurement of crime, large community differences in crime within cities, and the factors affecting individuals’ crime risk. City crime rankings make no one safer, but they can harm the cities they tarnish and divert attention from the individual and community characteristics that elevate crime in all cities. The Executive Board of the American Society of Criminology urges media outlets to subject city crime rankings to scientifically sound evaluation and will make crime experts available to assist in this vital public responsibility. (American Society of Criminology, n.d.)

In addition to announcing official policy positions of the organization, the ASC has also convened a National Policy Committee. As mentioned previously, earlier iterations of the ASC’s National Policy Committee have issued two policy papers (i.e., white papers). Each of these white papers makes clear through a disclaimer that the papers express the views of their authors and do not represent official policy positions of the organization (although clearly the policy paper on the death penalty supports the ASC’s previously announced official position on the death penalty).

Browse criminal justice research papers or view criminal justice research topics.