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Remarks at the Korean Institute of Criminology Forum


Remarks by David B. Muhlhausen given at the Korean Institute of Criminology Forum, December 7, 2017, in Seoul, South Korea.

Thank you, Dr. Yeon. I am honored to be here in Seoul and humbled to join this distinguished gathering of criminologists from across the Republic of Korea and the world.

Dr. Muhlhausen and Korean delegation

I want to thank the Korean Institute of Criminology for extending me the invitation to speak today. I thank Minister Park and the Ministry of Justice for hosting this forum and for their clear commitment to an effective justice system and to the safety of the citizens of this great country.

Finally, I want to express my appreciation to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for its sponsorship and for its steady leadership in the fight against international crime.

I come before you today as an envoy of our nation’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who leads the 110,000 employees of the United States Department of Justice. Attorney General Sessions is committing all his agency’s resources to reducing crime in America. As he works to keep American citizens safe, he is keenly aware that we no longer live in a world in which crime is contained by geographic boundaries.

Our porous borders, the ease with which criminals and terrorists are recruited and deployed in the dark corners of cyberspace, and the intricate network of international organized crime financed by an underground economy – these factors mean that crime-fighting is now a global, collective enterprise. Our Attorney General understands the complex challenges we are all facing, and he is grateful for the Korean government’s partnership in meeting these challenges.

The threats of crime and violence that we face in my country – like the threats faced across the world – are many and multiform. They are crimes perpetrated by gangs and users of illegally owned guns. They are violent offenses committed by drug dealers. They are human trafficking violations and incidents of exploitation enabled by the Internet, much of it targeted at women and children.

Criminals make use of a great number of tools to victimize the innocent, but criminal justice professionals also have substantial resources that they can employ to counter criminal activity. Not least among these is the knowledge we have gained through research about effective crime-fighting methods. Expanding this base of knowledge is a goal that my office, the National Institute of Justice, shares with the Korean Institute of Criminology.

NIJ, as we refer to ourselves, is the U.S. Department of Justice’s research, development, and evaluation agency. Our mission is to use science to advance criminal justice policies and practices across the country. To accomplish this, we provide objective knowledge to inform the criminal justice community, particularly at the state and local levels.

Perhaps a few words about the structure of American criminal justice are in order. Unlike most countries, public safety in the United States is not the responsibility of a single, national institution. Rather, it is handled by a network of systems managed by federal, state, and local governments. The federal government actually has jurisdiction over only a fraction of all criminal matters in the United States. Only about three percent of violent crimes are prosecuted at the federal level.

Many non-American audiences are fascinated when they hear that there are about 18,000 independent law enforcement agencies in the United States. These agencies have varying levels of funding and other resources at their disposal, and the crime problems they confront differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This system of enforcement reflects the decentralized structure of government created by our Constitution, and it has many strengths. But admittedly it poses some challenges.

One of the challenges is in the allocation of resources. A small, rural sheriff’s department simply will not have the same purchasing power, access to technology, and recruiting capacity as a well-funded urban police department. We aren’t able to close the gap by supplementing local budgets with federal money. That is fiscally impossible. What we can do – and this is my office’s role – is furnish information so that the imbalance in resources is equalized, at least to a degree, by knowledge.

At the National Institute of Justice, we’re interested in funding research that informs how we can best direct resources to combat violent crime. This has lately become an urgent imperative. Violent crime in the United States increased more than four percent last year, and homicides increased almost eight percent. These increases follow similar trends in 2015. This recent rise in violent crime over the past years is a cause for serious concern.

We also face in our country a drug epidemic unlike any we’ve seen in recent history. More than 64,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2016, and that’s up from 52,000 overdose deaths the year before. Most of these deaths were caused by prescription opioids, heroin, and dangerous synthetic drugs like fentanyl. Some of these drugs pose significant safety risks not only to users but also to law enforcement officers who are often first on the scene. The opioid crisis may be linked to the recent rise in violent crime.

Reversing these trends in violent crime is the top priority of the U.S. Department of Justice. Under direction of the President, the Attorney General established a national task force to identify crime reduction strategies. He also created a program called the National Public Safety Partnership, which coordinates the activities of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in areas where violent crime is particularly high.

In response to the opioid crisis, the President declared a public health emergency and has committed more than $800 million to prevention, treatment, and law enforcement efforts. My office is making significant funding available to study the problem and to determine what approaches are most effective in treating opioid users who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

The long-term success of these efforts to fight violent crime and reduce drug abuse depends on the ability of criminal justice professionals to identify and apply evidence-based methods – to understand what works and, just as important, what doesn’t work. Ultimately, this comes down to a question of rigorous evaluation of program effectiveness.

It’s a simple concept – keep doing what works and stop doing what doesn’t. But many programs in place to combat violent crime are not based in evidence. My background is in program evaluation and statistical methods, and I continue to be a strong advocate for rigorous evaluation.

Evaluations are vitally important, especially in a field with so much at stake as criminal justice. There is no merit in continuing criminal justice programs, no matter how well-intentioned, if they cannot be shown to prevent or reduce crime. Resources should be shifted away from programs that do not work and towards programs with demonstrated success. As Director of NIJ, I feel that rigorously evaluating the effectiveness of criminal justice programs is the agency’s most important mission.

To my mind, this means focusing resources on expanding randomized controlled trials, or RCTs. RCTs are the only way to determine the effectiveness of criminal justice programs with a high degree of certainty. We consider them the gold standard of social science research. Rigorous impact evaluations that use RCTs provide policymakers with improved capability to oversee criminal justice programs and protect the public.

RCTs are very resource-intensive and so are not practicable under all circumstances. But given their superiority in demonstrating causality, I firmly believe that we should undertake them wherever and whenever we can.

I also believe that, once we have established the effectiveness of an approach, we have a responsibility to replicate the results. This is not as simple as it sounds. If an innovative program appears to have worked in one location, it doesn’t mean that the program can be effectively implemented on a larger scale.

Proponents of evidence-based policymaking should not automatically assume that funding programs that attempt to replicate previously successful findings will yield the same results. We call this faulty reasoning the “single-instance fallacy.” This fallacy occurs when we believe that a small-scale program that appears to work in one instance will yield the same results when replicated elsewhere.

Compounding the effects of this fallacy, we often don’t truly understand why an apparently effective program worked in the first place. For example, the dedication and entrepreneurial enthusiasm of a program’s founder may be difficult to quantify or duplicate. In other words, a program’s effectiveness may be due in large part to the force of its leader’s personality. Its success may not survive that leader’s departure.

There are other variables as well. Conditions may simply be more hospitable to a certain approach in one community versus another. To take one example, a study of domestic violence cases in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the 1980s found that mandatory arrests of domestic violence offenders helped drive down domestic violence incidents.

Researchers urged that the findings be taken with caution, but numerous police departments found the results too promising to resist, so they tried the same approach in their own jurisdictions.

The results were mixed. In Omaha, Nebraska; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Charlotte, North Carolina – all cities similar in size to Minneapolis – the mandatory arrests resulted in long-term increases in domestic violence. Another example is a program pioneered in Hawaii called Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, otherwise known as HOPE. HOPE is an intensive supervision program that attempts to reduce crime and drug use while saving taxpayers' dollars spent on jail and prison costs.

HOPE focuses on people with histories of drug use who are considered at high risk of re-offending or returning to prison. This program has received a great deal of attention by the media and advocates of criminal justice reform.

Basically, it’s a court-based program that begins with a hearing in front of a judge, who makes the probation conditions clear to the probationer. If the probationer violates the conditions, each violation will result in an immediate but brief stay in jail.  The premise is that swift and certain punishment is more important to deterrence than the severity of the punishment.

A 2009 single-site study funded by NIJ found, after one year, that the treatment group was less likely to be arrested for a new crime, less likely to use drugs, and less likely to have their probation revoked than those on regular probation. The approach seemed to have a lot of promise, but the question remained – can the results be replicated?

So my office funded a multi-site RCT that attempted to replicate the original HOPE effects in four locations in the states of Arkansas, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Texas. Overall, this large-scale study found that the HOPE model was not associated with significant reductions in arrests and was unlikely to yield cost savings.

I want to be careful to point out that this does not mean that all approaches that rely on swift and certain punishments will fail. But it does mean that we must be careful about overgeneralizing the effectiveness of models based on single-site evaluations. Multi-site evaluations provide a way to avoid the single-instance fallacy. If a program model can’t be successfully replicated, then we need to be cautious about adopting the model more widely. Because of the single-instance fallacy, we should only deem programs as “evidence-based” after they have been found by RCTs to have consistent effects that meaningfully reduce crime in at least three different settings.

Once a program model has been found to produce meaningful results in multiple settings, the likelihood of its successful replication elsewhere increases significantly. This is, admittedly, a high standard to meet. But public safety, in my view, is the single most important activity of government. Our standards should be high.

An attitude of uncompromising rigor is, to my mind, a pre-condition of solid research in our field – and it will remain our objective at NIJ as we explore how to create safe, economically sustainable cities.

One outstanding question not yet fully answered by the research is the connection between crime and local economic conditions. It surprises many people to hear that public safety and economic prosperity do not always move in tandem. For example, the United States economy surged in the post-World War II years, but with one exception, crime rates also rose every year between 1949 and 1972.[1]

Other periods of American history are similarly inscrutable on this point. At times, crime rates go up while the economy does well, or they fall during times of recession. Still other periods find crime and economic conditions to move in inverse direction.

Arguments rage about whether economic downturns motivate people to commit crimes or, conversely, whether they discourage criminal acts because the visible signs of prosperity that attract thieves and other criminals are removed. In other words, are criminals more active in hard times because they’re more desperate, or do they have fewer incentives to act because there’s less for them to take? As yet, we have no definitive answer.

Yet if we look at the research, we can see that efforts to reduce crime in localities can lead to improved development opportunities and business revitalization. For instance, the National Institute of Justice is nearing the end of a study in the Washington, DC, and Los Angeles metropolitan areas that examines economic development and other social phenomena in connection with crime patterns. In the Washington study site, we’ve found that violence – particularly gun violence – does in fact have an impact on business revenue.

We’re going to be investigating this link from a different angle next year when we begin a study in Cleveland, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan. Neighborhoods in those two cities suffered rapid depopulation and significant economic decline following the 2008 recession, and levels of firearm violence now far exceed the national average. We’re hoping to determine whether demolishing or rehabilitating vacant and decaying housing will reduce gun violence.

Also next year, NIJ funding will support researchers in two other cities – Minneapolis and Durham, North Carolina – who will examine whether and how socio-economic factors contribute to community violence. Both cities have hosted several different violence reduction efforts in recent years, with mixed results. They’ve seen some positive short-term effects, but they’ve been unable to sustain those results over time. We want to find out why.

Beyond exploring the connection between crime and the economy, my office’s role is to support research that can help criminal justice professionals do their jobs better. In particular, we are investing our resources in improving policing strategies.

Policing in the United States, in addition to becoming more and more complex due to the expanding array of crimes being committed, is also dangerous. Almost 120 law enforcement officers were killed in line-of-duty incidents in 2016. Sixty-six died as a result of felonious acts. And more than 57,000 officers were assaulted while on duty. That’s more than 150 every single day.

We see the dangers that law enforcement officers face as part of a larger public safety problem. Where officers are respected, properly equipped, and well-informed, communities tend to be safer.

This year, my office awarded more than $10.7 million to support research on policing policies and practices, much of it focused on addressing violent crime.

We also published our Policing Strategic Research Plan. This document will guide our efforts to advance policing practices in the United States over the next five years. The challenges facing police officers today require evidence-based research that will advance their operations. Our strategic policing plan describes how we will provide police with knowledge and tools that support their workforce, promote more effective practices, and protect officers.

One of our best resources – for police and for the justice community as a whole – is a web resource we call CrimeSolutions. CrimeSolutions is a platform that provides a systematic, independent review process and evidence ratings of justice programs to answer the question: does it work?

The site has more than 500 programs, rated as effective, promising, or having no effects. One of the practices it rates as effective is a strategy known as hot spots policing.

The philosophy behind this strategy is that crime tends to concentrate in small areas, sometimes areas as small as a single city block or even a single building. A high percentage of any city’s crimes can often be traced to these hot spots. Studies have shown that when police focus their resources on those limited areas, they can achieve substantial reductions in a city’s overall crime rates. And what’s even more remarkable is that when crime drops in a hot spot, it doesn’t automatically go up in an adjacent area.

A promising strategy is a model known as focused deterrence. The idea behind this model is to target criminal behavior committed by a small number of chronic offenders – often gun, gang, and drug criminals. These offenders are confronted and informed that their behavior will no longer be tolerated. If they continue to offend, they will meet with tough sanctions. On the other hand, if they show that they are willing to cease their offending, they are directed to social services and job opportunities.

Focused deterrence has been tried as an approach to violent gun and drug markets, and the results have been largely successful. However, the evaluations of focused deterrence have been based on quasi-experiments, rather than RCTs.   .

When Operation Ceasefire was pioneered in Boston in the 90s in response to a rise in youth gun violence, a quasi-experiment found it as associated with a 44 percent decline in monthly youth gun assaults and a 63 percent reduction in the average monthly number of youth homicide victims.

Focused deterrence appears to hold substantial promise as crime reduction strategy.

A critical element of focused deterrence is its reliance on community members to establish behavioral norms. Offenders must know that what they’re doing is not only unlawful and intolerable in the eyes of the police but unacceptable in the eyes of their friends and families. Despite its logical premise, more scientifically rigorous evaluations, namely RCTs, are needed to classify focused deterrence as an evidence-based strategy.

The idea of community engagement as a means to public safety – as opposed to a single-minded emphasis on enforcement and suppression – is an important one. One randomized control trial in St. Louis County, Missouri, found that systematic engagement between the police and residents of high-crime neighborhoods had the potential to produce positive community outcomes.

We are currently evaluating a community-based crime reduction program funded by a grant-making office in the U.S. Department of Justice. We are examining 15 sites that use hot spots policing strategies to see if these approaches can both reduce crime and promote neighborhood revitalization.

It’s encouraging that other sectors of the government and a number of private organizations, as well, are investigating the link between community health and public safety. Researchers supported by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, have found that different forms of violence – from sexual abuse to bullying – often share the same root causes, and the community one resides in can either help protect a victim from further violence or place the victim at continued risk.

And returning to my earlier comments about the opioid crisis, if we hope to achieve sustainable crime reductions, we will certainly have to reckon with the connection between drugs and crime. I am concerned that two of the biggest crime surges of the last 50 years in the United States coincided with the heroin problem of the 1960s and the rise of crack cocaine in the 1990s. While the causal linkage between drug epidemics and crime surges is unclear, the current opioid epidemic and the recent rise in violent crime in the United States is alarming, regardless of any possible causal connection.

I mentioned the steps the Trump Administration is taking to beat back this new tide of opioid abuse. My office is allocating substantial resources to combat drug trafficking, illegal drug markets, and drug abuse, both of street drugs like heroin and of prescription drugs that have been diverted from their proper use.

Our research program is focused on gaining a better understanding of how to deal with heroin and other opioids, including fentanyl, diverted pharmaceuticals, and synthetic drugs. We also have a forensic science unit in my office that is helping to build the capacity of law enforcement agencies and forensic scientists to detect illicit drugs, conduct death investigations, and monitor offenders.

And we have a technology unit that supports efforts to deter, investigate, and disrupt drug markets – a key to driving down crime, particularly in urban neighborhoods.

Finally, our drug and crime research portfolio is supporting evaluations to determine how well diversion and treatment programs work. Drug courts that combine drug treatment with judicial sanctions are very popular in the United States. However, the evaluations of drug courts are too often based on quasi-experimental designs.

A major problem with quasi-experimental evaluations is selection bias. Before we can judge a drug court program to be effective, we first must understand the importance of selection. It can be astoundingly difficult to distinguish between what is working and what is not, and nowhere is this predicament truer than when the criminal justice system tries to change human behavior. For example, individuals volunteering entry into a drug court program may be more motivated than individuals not seeking the benefits of the program. Such motivational factors and other similar factors are often invisible to those assessing effectiveness. Failure to account for these crucial factors can produce a spurious association between drug court participation and recidivism and substance abuse outcomes. Nearly all quasi-experimental evaluations of drug courts are unable to adequately deal with the problem of selection bias.

For example, quasi-experimental evaluations of drug courts too frequently compare drug court graduates to non-graduates. The “much-heralded findings” based on this faulty methodology “show that the successes succeed and the failures fail.[2]

The limited number of RCTs that did not suffer from high attrition do not offer clear evidence of drug courts reducing recidivism. Therefore, drug court programs in the United States need to be rigorously evaluated using RCTs in order for policymaker to consider these programs effective.

The drug court model is now being used in some jurisdictions specifically to address opioid use. One of our fellow agencies in the Department of Justice is funding opiate intervention courts, and while it’s too early to tell how these courts will fare under a rigorous scientific evaluation, we hope that in the near future, we will be able to report positive findings that bear out the effectiveness of this approach. Again, if the past is a reliable guide, the safety of our communities will depend on our ability to resolve the opioid drug crisis. I also think that getting our nation’s drug problems under control will go far toward easing the distress that so many American communities are experiencing.

Establishing a link between economic conditions and crime may prove to be an elusive goal – time will tell – but the evidence is becoming clear that community factors beyond enforcement help determine public safety and that crime wields substantial influence in defining a community’s prosperity.

The good news is that we have a solid foundation of knowledge about what works to reduce crime, and we are building on that foundation with each new study. At the National Institute of Justice, we are striving to provide answers to the most pressing public safety questions of the day, and we are working to give criminal justice professionals the insights they need to address their crime problems, knowing that those problems will likely differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

The questions we are trying to answer are perennial, almost timeless. Our hope is that the answers we provide will prove to be just as timeless.

Finding solutions to our public safety dilemmas is not the work of a moment – it is a matter of deliberation, patience, and sustained focus. I am encouraged by the investments being made by research institutions across the globe to put criminal justice practices on sound scientific footing. The Korean Institute of Criminology is to be commended for its commitment to evidence-based practices and to letting knowledge lead the way in protecting citizens.

It has been a privilege to join you today. I am grateful for your time and your dedication, and I look forward to joining you on your march toward safer cities – and to a safer, more prosperous, more vibrant world.

Thank you.

[note 1] The exception year was 1955.

[note 2] John S. Goldkamp, Michael D. White, and Jennifer B. Robinson, “Do Drug Courts Work? Getting Inside the Drug Court Black Box,” Journal of Drug Issues, Vol. 31, No. 1 (2001), pp. 27–72.