NEWS 2011

IPR forum takes stock of U.S. criminal justice research, policies

discussing research
From left, Wesley G. Skogan, John Hagan, Jens Ludwig discuss their research with an
audience participant

Three of the nation’s leading researchers on crime and criminal justice discussed some of the recent, major changes in the American criminal justice system and policy implications at a March 28 IPR forum at Northwestern University.

Innovation in Policing

The first great lesson of policing innovation is that most major changes have been driven by external pressures, said IPR political scientist Wesley G. Skogan.

After presenting an inventory of policing reforms in operations, accountability, and management since the 1950s, Skogan pointed to the major role of the courts. “Lawsuit after lawsuit” has led to greater accountability and diversity in hiring and promotional practices. The Department of Justice has taken over a few major police departments, including in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, to clean up misconduct.

Not often discussed, however, are contributions from the broader policy community, Skogan noted. A wide range of individuals and organizations from university researchers and think tanks to foundations, consultants, and software developers have helped to launch innovations such as crime mapping throughout the country.

Politics and society—sometimes driven by crises—also play a decisive role in reforms. Skogan pointed to how popularity of community policing drove its spread, as well as how several state legislatures have passed mandatory arrest laws for certain situations, such as spousal assault. 

Even though police reforms are enthusiastically brought forward, they often fail due to rapid turnover in leadership and poor inter-agency cooperation, Skogan said. Plus, reforms are usually met with widespread internal resistance—especially when they include fundamental organizational change.

“No police chief ever lost his job because the crime rate went up,” Skogan said. “Police chiefs lose their jobs because of corruption and misconduct, scandal and crisis.”

“Also, it is not always clear that change is a good thing,” Skogan continued, pointing to the deeply flawed research that backed mandatory arrest laws.

Looking ahead, Skogan remarked the promise of technological innovations—such as in-car cameras and data warehouses. He described how Cook County, Ill., deployed an important IT innovation in a mere 17 months. Without dedicated time and personnel, however, such innovations are unlikely to succeed, he concluded.

Crime, Punishment, and Prison Funding

Perhaps one of the biggest changes in the nation’s crime policy over the past century has been the massive shift in how prisons are funded, said sociologist, law professor, and IPR associate John Hagan.

Between 1980 and 2008, the United States became the world’s leading jailer, with California leading the nation, Hagan said. Twenty-three prisons were built in the state in just two decades, between 1984-2004, compared with 12 built in the century before 1964.

Once a pay-as-you-go state, California turned to voter-approved general obligation bonds for building prisons in the 1980s. However, voters rejected this type of funding in 1990, and all new prisons since 1992 have been funded by lease-revenue bonds (LRBs)—an “end run” around public funding that essentially adds a line item to the state budget each year.

Passed by legislators, LRBs require no voter support, do not use competitive bidding to award contracts, and generate annual fees for the financial institutions servicing the debt. LRBs were originally used to fund public projects such as toll roads, where the revenue from leasing paid a bond’s interest. Yet those used to build prisons have no such revenue source, Hagan noted, and so by 2004, the state had assumed $5 billion in prison debt, up from $763 million in 1982.

Hagan’s analysis shows that “crisis framing” marked the mid-1980s to early 1990s, when the construction of new prisons was justified to the public by gross overestimation of prison needs. In addition, harsher punishments for street crimes (e.g., three-strike rules), high unemployment in sparsely populated counties, and lightly regulated LRBs fueled an economic incentive to build more.

Hagan concluded by pointing out how the co-dependency of “streets and suites” affects prison policy. “On the one hand, we are ramping up the punishment of street crime, while we are deregulating financial institutions and instruments,” he said.

Gun Policy in a New Second Amendment World

With a population just over 300 million, the United States has more than 250 million guns in private hands, said Jens Ludwig, an economist and director of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago.

Ludwig outlined the consequences of such pervasive ownership: 30,000 gun-related deaths, 80,000 injuries, and 500,000 gun-related crimes annually. The social costs of gun violence in Chicago alone amount to $2.5 billion per year.

Despite such high mortality rates and costs, the current political and judicial environment does not lend itself to big changes in gun regulations, he said. Federal gun legislation that does pass is often watered down, like the Brady Act, while local regulations are hard to enforce because of cross-jurisdiction spillovers like interstate gun transfers. The courts have struck down gun bans in both Washington, D.C., and Chicago on Second Amendment grounds.

So if broad changes in regulation are unlikely, where can policymakers have the most impact?

Ludwig suggested focusing on stepped-up enforcement efforts, and first attacking the problem by reducing gun access and usage by youth, including knocking down gun-carrying as a status symbol.

The second strategy is to target illegal gun carrying. His research shows that “swift and certain punishment” for illegal carrying likely discourages gun use more than longer prison terms.

Third, most criminals obtain their guns via a network that starts with legal manufacturers. So strategies such as imposing owner liability to reduce theft and investigating sale points more thoroughly could crack down on the underground gun market.

In terms of policy and politics, focusing on enforcement seems to be the right way forward and more productive than engaging in drawn-out legislative battles with the National Rifle Association, Ludwig concluded.