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Criminal Justice Research and Public Policy

Ninth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, Cairo, Egypt

Thank you, Dr. Scherpenzeel, for your generous words.

On behalf of the United States delegation, I want to thank the sponsors of the workshop: The European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, Affiliated with the United Nations [HEUNI], and especially you, Dr. Scherpenzeel, for your efforts in coordinating it. The UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute [UNICRI], the Ministry of Justice of the Netherlands, the Asia and Far East Institute [for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders], and the Office of International Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois, Chicago, were also organizers of the workshop, and we thank them as well. And we extend our thanks to Mr. Eduardo Vetere, Executive Secretary of the Ninth Congress, and to the Government of Egypt for the work of the National Organizing Committee that is hosting the Congress.


I am very honored to have the opportunity to address this workshop and to take part in the Congress. I would like to use the opportunity to share my thoughts about the use of criminal justice information, particularly research findings, to shape public policy on crime in the United States. I will also touch on what NIJ (as we call ourselves) has been doing recently in applying advanced information technologies to disseminate criminal justice information. Finally, I will suggest what we might do to use these technologies to better reach decisionmakers.

About the National Institute of Justice (NIJ)

First, I'd like to tell you something about the National Institute of Justice. NIJ is part of the United States Department of Justice, and is the chief agency of the U. S. federal government for sponsoring research in crime. To give you an idea of what NIJ does: we sponsor studies on police performance, prosecution, sentencing, and corrections; we study the nature of crime and criminal behavior; we examine such topics as juvenile offending, the drug-crime link, environmental crime, family violence, and gangs. Our science and technology unit develops techniques for criminal investigations and for other areas of law enforcement, such as the use of DNA evidence.

The NIJ mission also extends to searching for innovative, promising programs, which we support as experimental or "demonstration" programs. Most important for the purposes of this workshop, we communicate the findings of these studies, with the emphasis on getting them into the hands of practitioners and policymakers in the cities, counties, and states of the United States -- to police chiefs and prosecutors, prison wardens and court administrators and, increasingly, to community organizations and people who provide social and health services. More than ever, we are using advanced information technology to do this.

A Shared Problem

When I studied some of the background papers for the Congress, I noted the similarity between the areas of concern I just noted and those that appear elsewhere in the world. The workshops of the Congress focus on common concerns -- violent crime, urban crime, crime committed by young people, environmental crime, and organized crime, among others [ "United Nations Crime Congresses," SOC/CP/Department of Public Information 1643, no date; Vetere, E., K. Neudeck, and D. Van Zyl Smit, "The Ninth United Nations Crime Congress (1995)," European Journal of Crime, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice , 2, 1 (1994): 62-78. ] . It is difficult to make cross-national comparisons, but still these are immediately familiar to NIJ because they are major issues in the United States.

Crime patterns. Even the most casual perusal of crime patterns and trends makes evident the need for using information technology. We see new crimes emerging -- ones that were not even on the agenda of the first UN Congress 40 years ago. Computer-related crime is one; environmental crime is another. Today, new forces are shaping the crime problem, probably the most significant being economic and political liberalization. Countries in transition to free-market economies and multi-party democracies appear to be most vulnerable. Yet the more traditional crimes are still with us, and crime rates have increased in almost every industrialized country except Japan in the past three decades. [ Van Dijk, Jan J. M., "The International Crime Survey: a Tool for the Planning and Evaluation of National Crime Policies," Paper to be read at the preparatory seminar of the International Conference on Understanding Crime: Experiences of Crime and Crime Control, Rome, 17-18 March 1992.] Juvenile crime, particularly involving violence, is escalating steadily worldwide. [ Crime , United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Newsletter, No. 22/23 (July 1993): 11. ]

Crime in the U. S. A. In citing these patterns and trends, I cannot fail to note my own country, where rates for most violent crimes are higher than in almost all other developed countries. The United States leads the world in major violent crime. [ Lynch, James, "Crime in International Perspective," in Crime , ed. James Q. Wilson and Joan Petersilia, San Francisco: ICS [Institute for Contemporary Studies] Press, 1995: 21; Reiss, Albert J., and Jeffrey A. Roth, eds., Understanding and Preventing Violence , Washington, D. C.: National Academy Press, 1993: 52.] The level of handgun crime is particularly disturbing. The rate of homicides committed with handguns is more than 14 times that of Canada, for example. [ Lynch, "Crime in International Perspective": 22.] We are particularly troubled about the association of our young people with violence. [ Between 1983 and 1992 the number of people under 18 who were arrested for murder and non-negligent manslaughter in the United States more than doubled (by 128 percent). Among people age 18 and older, the increase was 8.6 percent. Crime in the United States, 1992: Uniform Crime Reports , Washington, D.C.: U. S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, October 3, 1993: 221. ]

Globalization. Of particular interest for this workshop is the increase in international crime and the increased transnationalization of crime. These phenomena have themselves been facilitated by advanced communications, including communications technology. Criminals use computers, just as we do. Moreover, information technology creates new opportunities for crime. The electronic transfer of funds is just one example. [ Clutterbuck, Richard, Terrorism, Drugs and Crime in Europe after 1992 , London: Routledge, 1990: 182.] Political and economic liberalization and the opening of borders in Europe and elsewhere are at work as well. One worrisome development is international trafficking in nuclear materials. [ "The United Nations vs. Transnational Crime," UN document SOC/CP/Department of Public Information, United Nations/1646, no date: 1; Washington Post , April 2, 1994.] Organized crime has become increasingly transnational, with the wealth of the TCO's [transnational crime organizations] exceeding that of some nations. [ "Crime Goes Global," United Nations DPI/1518/SOC/CON, New York: United Nations Department of Public Information, January 1995: 3. ] It is no surprise that Colombian cocaine is finding new markets in Europe. [ Blaauw, Jan, "European Law Enforcement after 1992," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin , 60, 7 (July 1991): 19.]

The global reach of crime calls for a corresponding response. Fortunately, the advances in communication that help spread crime around the globe are also available to the criminal justice community around the globe. These tools permit us the global reach and the speed -- the efficiency -- essential to help respond effectively to crime.

Using Research to Inform Policy-making

No matter how sophisticated the tools for transmitting and receiving information, we will not make as much progress as we can in reducing crime unless the relevant knowledge and information about the crime problem is available to and used by policymakers. That process -- translating information, particularly the findings of criminal justice research, into action by policymakers -- is the topic I would like to explore.

Conceptually, the process is simple. Much criminal justice research in the United States, as in other countries, is social science research. But no matter whether a study is closer to sociology or to chemistry, it proceeds in much the same way. In our idealized vision of the research process, an independent researcher dispassionately sets to work examining a specific issue, selected by the researcher on the basis of his or her expertise in a given field. The area of interest will, in general, also reflect the interests of the organization sponsoring the project -- NIJ or another organization. The research will use the most scientifically rigorous -- and therefore most objective -- methods. The findings and conclusions will be impartial and devoid of bias, having been mediated by no political agenda. They will be subjected to peer review by criminologists and others expert in their fields. The wisdom of the conclusions and the policy implications drawn from them will be carefully scrutinized by policymakers and translated into action, taking shape as legislation or other practice.

The ideal vs. the reality. Rarely, however, do events unfold as smoothly as I just described them. But NIJ's experience has been that in many instances policy and practice do change in response to sound research. I will cite just one example. In policing, a traditional practice was to engage in "preventive patrol," an approach in which police vehicles patrol an area more or less randomly. It was believed to be more effective than other approaches in preventing crime, making people feel safe, and answering citizens' calls. As a result of the NIJ study which showed the approach was no more effective than others, many police departments modified their patrol practices. Rather than patrolling the streets randomly, officers were given assignments that allowed them to be less reactive -- to take a more strategic approach. [ Twenty Five Years of Criminal Justice Research: The National Institute of Justice , Washington, D. C.: U. S. Department of Justice: National Institute of Justice, December 1994: 11-12. ]

I could cite many other instances in which the ideal and the reality have come close. But in other instances, there are greater challenges in translating research into practice. I would like to share these with you because I know that NIJ is not alone in facing them, and I think that bringing them to light can illuminate a discussion of how the process might be improved.

The value placed on criminal justice research. One issue that has a major effect on research and ultimately its relationship to policymaking in the United States is the amount of attention, or more accurately, the relative lack of attention, accorded to criminal justice research. What makes this puzzling is that among all issues, crime is a major concern -- if not the major concern -- of the people of the United States. [ New York Times , January 23, 1994. A New York Times/CBS poll found that more survey respondents cited crime or violence than any other issue as the single most important issue facing the United States.]

One way to measure the amount of attention paid to criminal justice research is to compare what is spent on it to what is spent on research for other life-threatening conditions. Our National Academy of Sciences looked at the amount of research funds spent per "year of potential life lost" on various conditions. They found that the research agencies of the United States government spend close to $800 [$794] per year of potential life lost to cancer; for heart, lung, and blood diseases, about $440 [$441]; for AIDS research, close to $700 [$697]; but for violence research, they spend only $31. [ Reiss and Roth, Understanding and Preventing Violence : 346. ]

Research cannot find a "cure." Criminal justice research has a difficult time proving its value. We rarely see immediate results. When we do, they are often tentative and hedged with qualifications and caveats. Also, research takes time, but we need answers now. Medical research seeks a cure, and sometimes finds one. If a massive investment of research funds produces a cure for cancer, the wisdom of the investment will be confirmed. In criminal justice research, no matter how extensive the research or how sound or how innovative, there will be no criminal justice equivalent of the Salk vaccine to wipe out polio, no "magic bullet" to eradicate smallpox.

So, skepticism about the utility of research is a deterrent to its use. In fact, there is considerable skepticism that much can be done at all. Crime is perceived to be intractable, and certainly the crime problem in the United States lends credence to this belief. But I would argue that the difficulty of the problem cannot deter us from continuing to build the knowledge base.

Assumptions drive policy. It seems that for crime more than for any other area of domestic policy in the United States, policy-making is driven by assumptions. Perhaps this is because crime involves issues of morality and is often an emotional topic. So it is difficult to view with the detached, clinical eye of the scientist. Rather than basing our actions on objective research findings, deep-seated convictions about criminals and the justice system prevail in many cases. In the worst cases, crime policy disregards the facts of research. An example is what to do to put illegal drug markets out of action. Researchers have shown that the certainty of punishment is more effective as a deterrent than increased severity of punishment. [ Nagin, Daniel, "General Deterrence: A Review of the Empirical Evidence," in Deterrence and Incapacitation: Estimating the Effects on Crime Rates , in Alfred Blumstein et al., eds., Washington, D. C.: National Academy Press, 1978. ] Although these findings are accepted by researchers, policy has moved in the opposite direction. [ Blumstein, Alfred, and Joan Petersilia, "Investing in Criminal Justice Research," in Crime , ed. James Q. Wilson and Joan Petersilia, San Francisco: ICS [Institute of Contemporary Studies] Press, 1995: 468.]

The research tradition. Part of the explanation for the relative lack of commitment to research stems from the nature of research traditions in the field of criminal justice. That tradition includes association with the legal profession -- my profession. It is the dominant professional group in legislative bodies in the United States and in the criminal justice system. In the legal profession there is no tradition of empirical research comparable to that of the medical profession, where physicians continually absorb the research literature to learn to do their jobs better. Some contribute to medical research themselves. This degree of commitment to research is unfortunately absent from the legal profession in the United States.

New Opportunities for Linking Research to Policy

Now I'd like to turn to the more positive side. One gratifying development in the United States is practitioners' growing acceptance of research, due I think to our attempts to respond better to their questions and concerns. There is also great promise in the national anti-crime legislation enacted in my country last year. Even with the major overhaul of this law now under way in the U. S. Congress, it is probable that substantial resources will be authorized for evaluative research to ensure that the law will have its intended effect.

Community policing is an example. We will, downstream, need to find out whether the community policing programs established under the aegis of the law in cities and counties across the U. S. are working or not working. Evaluative research, which will be sponsored by NIJ, will measure the success of these programs. When it comes to creating new programs, policymakers are more likely to do so if evaluative study shows they work.

One focus of NIJ evaluation is on a new approach to crime prevention, which essentially combines research with action. Borrowing from the research model of public health, it seeks to understand "risk factors" for disease. Understanding these factors is the first step to devising interventions. "Problem-solving," as the approach is called, has begun to gain adherents in criminal justice. The aim is to create low-cost, common-sense solutions to local problems that are risk factors for violence. Proponents believe it is more promising than simply imprisoning people on the one hand or finding "root causes" of violence on the other. [ Roth, Jeffrey, and Mark H. Moore, Reducing Violent Crimes and Intentional Injuries , Research in Brief, Washington, D. C.: U. S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, forthcoming. ] And by "telescoping" the time between research and action by combining them, problem-solving can meet the need for timely response.

At NIJ we have begun to explore problem-solving. In Atlanta, Georgia, for example, we are working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and with the community to find ways to prevent gun violence among young people.

I think we can also take some comfort in findings from the field of "knowledge utilization." Experts in this field confirm what we in criminal justice know from experience. They tell us that, in contrast to the "hard sciences," in social science research it is difficult to measure effects, and so it is difficult to find out the effects on policy. The effects are there, but they are indirect, more nuanced. If criminal justice research does not change policy in measurable ways, it challenges old ways of thinking; it leads policymakers to rethink their problems, even to rethink how they identify problems; to consider new alternatives; essentially, to think in new categories. [ Petersilia, Joan, The Influence of Criminal Justice Research , Santa Monica, California: The RAND Corporation, June 1987: vi-vii, 4-5.]

NIJ and Other Criminal Justice Research Institutions

That is the way things are in the United States to date. I think it may be instructive to elaborate on the organizational relationship of criminal justice research to policymaking in the U. S. That relationship is not unique, of course; in Australia, for example, with the Australian Institute of Criminology, it is similar. In England and Wales, Germany, and the Netherlands,to cite other examples, the relationship is different. Comparisons and contrasts are perilous, but they can bring to light advantages and disadvantages and deepen our understanding.

At NIJ, we have a commitment to a multi-year research agenda consisting of six goals or goal areas (reducing violent crime is an example). In working toward these goals, we bear in mind at all times our status as a government institution. That means, for one thing, that within these six broad goals, our research priorities will reflect the interests of the current presidential administration, including the Attorney General as head of the Justice Department and a member of the President's cabinet.

At the same time we want our agenda to reflect the needs of criminal justice policymakers and practitioners. They are, for the most part, elected and appointed officials at the level of the states and the cities and counties. In the United States, the vast majority of criminal justice activity is a matter state and local -- not national government -- concern. NIJ's emphasis is not, therefore, on national criminal justice policy, but on assisting the diverse world of criminal justice policy in the 50 states and the thousands of communities throughout the country. We are cognizant of their needs for research and we tap their expertise when we refine our research agenda. Yet we know from experience that NIJ's research findings may at times call into question the efficiency or effectiveness of established ways that police or prosecutors or other practitioners do things.

Regardless of the level of government we assist, NIJ is committed to conducting research that is rigorous and objective. Our research findings must be viewed as independent of specific policy positions or political concerns, because the knowledge we develop must be credible and trusted if it to be useful. NIJ is fortunate in that certain structural components promote this independent stance. NIJ was established statutorily by the U. S. Congress; its Director is appointed by the President of the United States and must be confirmed by the U. S. Senate. Though the Director has wide latitude, and is authorized under statute to distribute research funds, he also relies on the research community -- to recommend research projects, for peer review, and like matters. The research findings become public knowledge, available to all.

We are able, I believe, to achieve a balance among these many competing needs, and this constitutes one of NIJ's strength as a research institution. Above all, we are able to maintain the commitment to our long-term research goals. At the same time, in selecting specific research projects, we draw on the expertise of the research community, while also meeting the needs of practitioners and policymakers and reflecting the policy interests of the current presidential administration. I think NIJ has done well in balancing these interests.

Elsewhere, the relationship of research to policymaking is different, with the ties much closer. Closer ties should mean greater certainty that research findings will find their way into policymaking, but the research agenda may be narrower and the findings not as generalizable. At NIJ, by contrast, we have more latitude in determining our agenda and we can conduct research that is relevant to policy but also contributes to a general knowledge base.

But in "marketing" our findings we are pretty much on our own, and must work hard to do so. So we constantly seek opportunities to exchange ideas, compare strategies, and refine approaches. This workshop is a forum for doing this, and in it we can look specifically at how information technology can be used as a tool.

What NIJ Is Doing in Advanced Information Technologies

Nations fortunate enough -- affluent enough -- to have advanced information technologies have a powerful tool to reach policymakers, and to find an unlimited audience. I would like to describe very briefly some of the things NIJ is doing in the way of using these tools and promoting their use.

NCJRS Online. NIJ has put the vast clearinghouse of criminal justice information it administers -- the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) -- online. It is now reachable over the Internet and by modem, so is accessible worldwide. Just one of the many services enables users to download documents. We use this system to publish NIJ documents electronically.

Communication is not just one-way on the Internet. So with NCJRS Online we are encouraging online dialog among criminal justice professionals through listservs -- electronic discussion forums. Martin Lively of NIJ is scheduled to discuss NCJRS Online at this workshop later this afternoon.

International Rule of Law (ROL) Clearinghouse Online Project. Expanding its international programs, NIJ has teamed with the Eurasia Foundation to develop an electronic library for the exchange of information on the rule of law. Its aim is to help people in the emerging democracies of the former Soviet Union who are working to reform legislative processes, legal institutions, and justice administration. Sergey Chapkey, a prosecutor from Ukraine who is also a Visiting Fellow at NIJ, will present an overview of the project tomorrow afternoon at this workshop.

"UNOJUST". The United Nations Crime and Justice Information Network (UNCJIN) has demonstrated the feasibility of global telecommunication via personal computer among criminal justice researchers and practitioners. At the request of the UN Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Branch, NIJ led the process of conceptualizing and developing an Internet-based system that will integrate UNCJIN with other automated criminological systems and networks. We believe that the model and the software we developed and tailored to the needs of the research institutes affiliated with the Branch will enhance information exchange. Slawomir Redo of the Branch and Martin Lively of NIJ will present "UNOJUST" later in the workshop.

Improving the Relationship of Research to Policymaking

The advantages of these technologies in speed and global accessibility are so familiar now that they require no explanation. Internet is accessible worldwide. However, it is not available worldwide, and this poses the danger that the use of this tool will be limited to the affluent. So, more needs to be done to disseminate the technology itself.

I think that several things can be done in addition to making the technology more widely available. We need to make sure that the issues we address are relevant to policymaking and practice. We need to make clear the potential benefits of our research findings and recommendations. [ Discussion in Petersilia, Influence of Criminal Justice Research : xii-xiii.] Because the issues that policymakers deal with are so urgent, we need to be timely in disseminating information. Finally, we can better target the policymaker audience by such means as online discussion groups and subscription services. In all these undertakings, information technology can be -- will be -- of great service. The details of how we do this need to be worked out. But doing so will help ensure that the tools we have are working to best effect to reduce crime.

As I see it, the major challenge for social science research conducted within a government institution -- whether in the United States or elsewhere -- is to do all it can not just to ensure that the knowledge base expands, but to transform knowledge so that practitioners can then "operationalize" it. But although we are more oriented to the practical than our associates in academia, the knowledge "product" also needs to be at a level of abstraction that permits generalizing to a range of situations. This requires a distinctive "philosophy" of research that maintains an orientation to the more practical while ensuring the methodological rigor demanded of social science research. I am confident that we at NIJ are meeting the challenge.

But we also recognize the difficulties and the limitations of translating research into policy and recognizing them, I think, is also one of our strengths.