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Technology in Criminal Justice: Creating the tools for transformation

Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences

Good morning:

I am very pleased to be with you this morning to discuss the challenges of technology that are facing the criminal justice system. Your invitation to speak with you has provided me and my colleagues at the National Institute of Justice a welcome opportunity to step back from our day-to-day activities at NIJ to reflect on the role of technology as a transforming agent in the criminal justice system. It is my hope that the ideas I outline today will accurately convey the strategy that we are developing in harnessing the enormous power of technology to achieve important social purposes in criminal justice.

Clearly, the technological revolution that is sweeping the nation and the world has not spared the criminal justice system from its broad sweep. Like other areas of public and private endeavor, the work of police agencies, court systems, correctional institutions, community groups and the other institutions that collectively constitute our response to the twin challenges of crime and justice are caught up in the hurricane of technological change. The revolution is moving at such a rapid pace that breakthrough technologies of yesterday seem commonplace today. Police officers now routinely wear vests that can stop bullets. Judge routinely order electronic monitoring as a condition of probation. Prisons administer health care without moving incarcerated persons through the miracle of telemedicine. Community groups can assess the incidence of crime in their neighborhoods with sophisticated computerized crime maps.

The agencies of government have begun to embrace the promise of technological change in the criminal justice system. Let me use the federal system as an illustration. Three years ago, the Vice President, the Attorney General and the Secretary of Defense executed a Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense pledging the cooperation of those two agencies to converting the successes of defense technology into new technologies for civilian law enforcement use. Congress then appropriated over sixty million dollars over two years in the Defense budget to support the conversions of those technologies. In the Crime Act, Congress and the President agreed that a portion of the funds to support the goal of 100,000 additional police officers would be devoted to funding new technologies in police departments. Last year, the Congress set aside one percent of the policing funds of the Crime Act — $20 million a year — to support the development of new technologies for law enforcement and criminal justice. Congress also funded within NIJ the creation of a network of five regional law enforcement and corrections technology centers around the country to bring technologies closer to the end users at the local level.

This strong, bipartisan base of support across the executive and legislative branches of our federal government is strong testament to our national commitment to bring law enforcement and criminal justice into the mainstream of the technological revolution.

The question we should pose at this unique moment in history is, "Whither the revolution?" Where are we headed? How should our investments be made? How should the breakthroughs of science be translated into the reforms of practice? How do we ensure that we — not technology — are the masters of our fate?

I would like to share some of my thoughts about these questions by discussing five concrete technologies that can profoundly affect the practice of criminal justice agencies — the technologies of drug testing, DNA, concealed weapons detection, information technology and knowledge about what works. You may be somewhat puzzled by that last one — the technology of knowledge about what works — but I hope you will agree with my starting proposition that, properly defined, technology is a tool, not a solution. Technology is a way to perform our tasks better. Technology should be seen as a way of bringing science to bear on the problems of crime and justice. In this sense, knowledge — the kind of rigorous, scientific knowledge that good research can produce — is our most powerful technology. And, I hope you agree, our ability to produce that knowledge about crime and justice is also advancing rapidly and we need to ask the same questions about the tool of knowledge — how do we invest in it, how do we use it, how do we harness it to maximum utility for the good of society.

I. Drug Testing Technology.

Drug testing technology is now commonplace in American society. Its use is far-reaching in many sectors. Airline pilots, police officers, participants in school sports, even federal employees — including prospective Directors of the National Institute of Justice — must undergo drug tests as conditions of employment. Proponents of drug testing have advocated that some of the critical privileges of citizenship such as drivers licenses, candidacy for elective office and even welfare benefits be conditioned on passing drug tests.

In the area of criminal justice, the availability of a relatively simple, relatively inexpensive and significantly powerful drug test to determine recent drug use has opened a wide range of issues that reach into uncharted realms of law, policy and practice. We should dwell only briefly on the rapid advances of the technology itself. Urine testing is quite cheap, can produce virtually immediate results and has achieved widespread acceptance in criminal justice. But there are limitations — most notably the relatively short window of detection for cocaine compared to a longer window for marijuana. More powerful — and for the immediate future more expensive — technologies such as hair tests, sweat patches and other bioassays can detect drug usage over a longer period of time, often with less intrusion into the subject's realm of privacy.

The potential use of drug testing in criminal justice presents, I would argue, the most compelling case for rapid deployment of available technology. Consider the following facts. According to the Drug Use Forecasting data gathered in 23 cities around the country, between half and three quarters of all individuals arrested and held in police lockups test positive for drugs. Approximately two-thirds of all cocaine and heroin consumed in the United States is consumed by "frequent users", defined as those who use drugs more than once a week — and about half of them are arrested over the space of a year. Solid research shows that drug use is strongly associated with criminal behavior. And solid research, conducted in five states, shows that providing treatment to incarcerated individuals, combined with treatment while on release, is effective at reducing drug use and criminal behavior by about a quarter. Finally, the emerging research on drug courts, which combine parsimonious use of the coercive powers of the criminal justice system with drug testing and treatment, shows they are effective at reducing drug use in a released population.

Taken together, these research findings suggest that interventions in the lives of drug users that build upon the apparatus of the criminal justice system can reduce drug use, reduce crime, and enhance prosocial behaviors. Given this array of research, why would we not, as a society, view the incidence of an arrest as an opportunity to intervene to break the cycle of drug use and crime? Why would we not use the technology of drug detection routinely as part of our decision making processes?

At the National Institute of Justice, we are about to launch a research demonstration project in Birmingham Alabama that will test the impact of this system-wide approach to the problem of drug use. Called the Breaking the Cycle project, this experiment will test every arrestee, assess the drug histories of drug users, and then ensure that every component of the system — judges, jail and correctional officials, prosecutors and defense attorneys, treatment providers and pretrial release agencies — work together to reduce drug use. This is not a diversion program, not a drug court, not a prison treatment program — this is a system-wide approach that essentially adopts a public health perspective and views drug abuse in the arrestee population as a presenting condition that should be the concern of every component of the criminal justice system. There are conceptual similarities between the Breaking the Cycle demonstration program and other initiatives at the federal level. Starting this year, 24 districts in the federal criminal justice system will adopt policies of universal drug testing for all arrestees as part of President Clinton's initiative. New federal legislation requires states to develop policies for testing incarcerated persons and parolees according to guidelines promulgated by the Justice Department. Congress made $25 million available to the States as part of the Byrne Program to fund these new programs. The Crime Act provides for significant expansion of the numbers of drug courts. These federal initiatives parallel the increased use of drug testing and treatment funded at the state and local level.

All of these innovations have at their core a powerful concept and a powerful tool. The tool is drug testing; the concept is that this knowledge about drug use can assist the criminal justice agencies in making better informed decisions about interventions that will reduce drug use and enhance public safety.

II. DNA Technology.

Another powerful new technology is DNA. DNA allows us to match a biological sample to an individual at a mathematical level that approaches absolute certainty. DNA tests are now frequently used and DNA evidence is admissible in almost all jurisdictions around the country. We are aware of the high profile cases — O.J. Simpson, Sam Shepherd. We have seen the potential of DNA to demonstrate the fallibility of the criminal justice system. At the request of Attorney General Reno, the National Institute of Justice recently published a book describing 28 cases in which DNA results were used to exonerate individuals who had been convicted of serious crimes. Entitled "Convicted by Juries; Exonerated by Science", this book presented compelling human stories of 28 men who had served an average of seven years in prison only to be released after the science of DNA showed that they were innocent. Each of them had protested his innocence; most had alibi witnesses; all had taken their cases to jury verdicts; all had been convicted on other evidence such as eyewitness testimony and other forensic evidence. Yet when the DNA results became available, their claims of innocence were finally sustained. We have much to learn from these cases about the intrinsic weaknesses in our system of justice

What does the future of this technology hold? Certainly, DNA will continue to be used more frequently to eliminate innocent suspects from criminal investigations, presumably much earlier in the process. More powerfully, DNA will be used to convict defendants who are now not convicted. Let's imagine a world in which DNA is used as frequently as fingerprints are used now. It is a radically different criminal justice system. Within the next three to five years, with NIJ funding, DNA science will advance to the point where portable DNA labs can be taken to crime scenes, and multiple samples can be tested simultaneously, with virtually immediate results, at relatively low cost. These results will then be run against an ever increasing DNA database of offenders that will enable the police and prosecutors to match samples and more rapidly include and exclude suspects. What will be the impact of this capability upon crime scene work? On the use of photo arrays and lineups? On prosecutorial charging decisions? On plea-bargaining? On jury trials? On appellate practice? The mind literally cannot fathom the widespread repercussions for our system of justice.

Over the next few years NIJ hopes to examine these implications by convening a group of scientists and practitioners to ponder the future of DNA. We hope to develop a vision of the technological and laboratory infrastructure that will be needed to realize the potential of DNA. But this much is known: the technological revolution is upon us and we are not ready.

III. Concealed Weapons Detection Technology.

Two years ago, James Q. Wilson, writing in the New York Times magazine, in an article entitled "What to do about Crime?", asked why this nation, with its renown technological capabilities, could not develop technologies that would detect concealed weapons. President Clinton circled that paragraph, sent it to Janet Reno with a note asking Why not? She sent it to me, and we funded three separate promising technologies that would detect concealed weapons. Since then, a total of nine separate technologies, using different scientific approaches, have been launched, some of them funded under the Crime Act, some of them funded in the Defense Department. Within the next two years, some of the most promising new technologies will be ready for field testing in real world environments. We can predict that within a decade, police officers, court security officers and other enforcement officials will be able to ascertain whether an individual is carrying a firearm.

Again, the implications of these technological developments for everyday practice are stunning. Imagine that a police officer had available a hand held device that could, at relatively short range, ascertain whether a suspect was armed. When would we want that police officer to use such a device? What would be the legal threshold for its use? How would this technology be used in a world where carrying concealed weapons is often legal? Can we imagine a practice of "gun stops" that would resemble DWI stops that are now commonplace? Would public events such as rock concerts be routinely accompanied by sophisticated weapons detection apparatus? Would schools routinely have entrances that incorporate unobtrusive weapons detection systems? How would we balance our concerns for public safety with our nation's respect for privacy and our constitutional safeguards against unreasonable searches?

These questions need to be debated before the technology overtakes our policy deliberations. At NIJ we are committed to promoting these discussions, but I encourage the members of the audience to engage in that discussion as well, just as we have begun a national dialogue on drug testing and DNA.

IV. Information Technology.

In many ways, the technological revolution that is most familiar to us is the information revolution. With the click of a mouse, we can enter the libraries of the research institutions of the world, retrieve a document in foreign language, have it translated into English, and print it in our home. Police officers responding to a 911 call can access the crime history of a particular location, check the background of a particular suspect using fingerprints, fill out what we used to call paperwork in the squad car by using a hand-sized computer, and return to patrol. Probation officers can track the movements of probationers using electronic monitoring devices; victims of domestic violence or stalking can be alerted when monitored individuals get within a specified range; community groups can access computerized crime maps to understand the patterns of crime and disorder in their neighborhoods; investigators can quickly scan hundreds of databases to learn about the most intimate details of people under investigation.

These new capabilities pose new challenges to the criminal justice system. Some of those challenges are familiar to us — such as how to balance privacy concerns with the need to conduct criminal investigations — yet these challenges are magnified by the sheer reach of the new information technology. I think the more difficult challenges lie in a different direction. We need to ask ourselves how information technology fits into and supports emerging principles of criminal justice. For example, we should ask how information technology can support the problem solving efforts of community policing? How can information technology help move decision-making in criminal justice to the front line of practice so that employees, including police officers, probation officers, judges and service providers can make better decisions, exercising more discretion, and finding job fulfillment? How can we use information technology to bridge the divide between the government agencies of policing and criminal justice and the citizens they serve? Can access to information increase public accountability for the processes of criminal justice that have lost public confidence over the past decades?

In short, we must remember that technology should not become the driver of change, rather should be view as a tool for transforming criminal justice in ways that will enhance both our capability to control crime and our need to secure justice in ways consistent with our democratic values. Last week, the National Institute of Justice and the office of Community Oriented Policing Services in the Department of Justice announced the award of $4 million in grants to develop technologies that support community policing. We hope to create partnerships between the nation's technology industry and progressive police departments to bring new science to support reforms in our approach to policing. We plan to continue this approach over the years to come.

V. The Technology of Knowledge.

Those in the audience who remember the era of the Law Enforcement Administration will recall the phrase "technology transfer" — which did not refer to traditional definitions of technology, rather captured the idea that important insights into ways to improve practice in policing and criminal justice should be shared from one jurisdiction to others around the country. We should still view knowledge as the most powerful technology — and we should not lose sight of the importance of developing the most powerful knowledge about what works and what doesn't. This is the role for the research community that is represented at this conference — and I want to close my remarks by calling upon our community to take seriously our obligations to produce the most powerful knowledge. We are all puzzled from time to time with the difficulty of translating research into practice and policy — we often wonder why we are not making more progress in developing new approaches to the twin challenges of crime and justice.

From our perspective within the National Institute of Justice, we are looking for opportunities to enhance our knowledge by raising the stakes and the standards of the research endeavor itself. We are looking for opportunities to test new ideas with the most rigorous scientific methods at our command. Said differently, we are looking for the communities of research and practice to develop proposals for rigorous field experiments, for research demonstration projects, that test interventions that are solidly based in research, that explicitly set out to test research hypotheses, that employ the most rigorous scientific methods — preferably random assignment where possible and appropriate — that envision replication to test preliminary findings, and that are conducted in a manner that will have greatest implications for practice around the nation. The Breaking the Cycle project in Birmingham is such an effort — and we are hopeful that we can fund replications of that project in adult and juvenile systems over the next two years. At NIJ, we are now developing a research demonstration project that will test interventions that will break the cycle of violence that puts abused and neglected children on a track that results in increased levels of delinquency and criminality. We are actively considering design of similar efforts in the area of batterers and sex offenders. In short, we are challenging ourselves, the research community, and the community of innovative practitioners to come up with the most powerful ideas that will significantly advance knowledge and practice and then test those ideas in the complex arena of the real world. This technology — the development of powerful new paradigms — will ultimately provide greatest service to our society's efforts to prevent and control crime and achieve justice.

So, yes, we stand at the forefront of a revolution in technology. Yet this revolution presents the same issues that other technological advances have presented in the past. We must keep our values foremost in our minds as we integrate technological advances into day to day practice. We must see new technologies as partners in our efforts for reform, not as masters of our fate. We must be willing to abandon old ideas as new ones evolve from possibility to reality. We — particularly those of us engaged in the research enterprise — must be willing to be constructive critics, challenging those new ideas objectively while recognizing that our independent critiques should still be supportive of the willingness of practitioners to take risks on our society's behalf that may, if successful, benefit the larger community.

Thank you.