Friday, October 20, 2006

“We Know What Works”

Those words, spoken by long-time CO Statistical Analysis Center director Kim English, basically opened the Bureau of Justice Statistics/Justice Research and Statistics Association conference in Denver last week. Kim would know. As I mentioned yesterday, she's a national authority on sex offender treatment and recidivism, and she's mentored SAC directors like I was for years. Her words are at least 95% right. When it comes to what we need to do to have an effective criminal justice system in terms of both public safety and cost, there's still a small fraction that needs work, but mostly we do know. Just click the "Research and Reports" and "Articles and Commentary" links on the right. The knowledge is there to have a cj system performing exponentially better for us all than it currently does.

So why do we have the one we have, with continued use of so many demonstrably ineffective policies and programs, with the growing Gordian Knots of our prison policies in more and more jurisdictions? In my last post, I noted that some of us take responsibility on ourselves. It's our failure to "get our message out," they say, or "we need to enable our users." Okay, yes, we can be pedantic and our contacts too limited (I'm speaking for myself here, but feel free to join in), but, as I've made clear, I don't buy much of that.

The users (public and their reps) also have responsibilities as citizens and officials that they are not living up to. Figuring out how to sell our spina . . . broccoli as ice cream to self-indulgers, or worse, make broccoli ice cream, diverts us and promises no better success. I'm a strong advocate of transparency and public outreach, and I've practiced what I preach. And, because I've been on the front lines, both in cj and as a small town school board member for 9 years, I've been on the highs and the lows of the experience. With all due respect to the "enabling users" advocates, it won't get the job done. There's that "horse to water" thing involved.

So what can we do, beyond improving ourselves and our "message"? I know that I frequently come off here as a Cassandra (at best), but I still can be an idealist. I'm not for throwing in the towel, just for being realistic about opportunities and probabilities for success. And, as I said in the last post, I actually do think there is something more we can do.

The conference's theme was "Informing Public Policy," but it could just as easily have been "Everybody's An Expert." It was mentioned frequently that we fail to make headway with "what works" because everyone in the public believes s/he is an authority on crime themselves, its causes, who does it and why. That those people are almost always not just wrong but counterproductively and dangerously so doesn't stop them because there are always bureaucrats (aka us) to blame. How many years of a "drug war" does it take, or how many people incarcerated but not corrected, before we recognize some "if you keep doing the same thing over and over . . . " at work here? But when all that make the news are the failures, when movies and tv only show us purely innocent victims and purely evil villains, when fear and need for control above all dominate our discourse, it's not that surprising that people keep asserting themselves with tried-and-untrue remedies.

We used to do that in another area, too--health. Everybody had a remedy, passed along faithfully that, as in criminal justice, generally did more harm than good but was continued because more effective alternatives couldn't work their way through the fear and blather. How did we stop that, get to today's far better prospects in policy and future? By professionalizing bodies of knowledge in engineering and medicine and the people who practiced them. Yes, I know people still ingest roots and forgo surgery, smoke, down wings and 45-oz. gulps. But name an area of public welfare more advanced over the last century, the last 3 centuries. And it's because the fields of public health finally had recognized professional expertise. Few people claim to know how to do sanitation systems better, and most will have that lump removed when the doctor says to. So, IMO, one of the chief means we in crim just policies need to adopt to "get our message out" is to professionalize it.

But we have crim programs at universities now, you say. Well, they had engineering schools and medical programs way back when. That's not all it takes. A few years back I had the very good fortune of teaching a policy and programming seminar for 3 years for the professional Master's program at the U of MD's number one in the country Criminology & Criminal Justice program. It was specifically designed on paper to be at least a step toward what I'm proposing here. However, in practice, it was primarily academic and research. Each semester I had numerous students tell me that mine was the only course they took related to what they would do in practice. The rest were crim theory and advanced methodology that rarely sees the light of day in state or local operations. That's not a knock on the great people at UMD. They taught what they knew, which is the best n the nation. But it just meant that their program, as excellent as it demonstrably is, was not designed for what I'm talking about here.

Math, physics, chem--they all needed engineering schools to translate their findings into action. Same for biology and chem with med schools. Crim Just practice needs the same, to take the valuable research and results from all the great crim and public affairs programs (UMD isn't the only one, as readers who graduated from the others have been screaming at me for paragraphs now) and translate them in the same way into authoritative practice that can't be disputed by people who argue "but we always dumped our poop this way."

But schools devoted to criminal justice policy administration alone won't be enough. We also will need the cj equivalent of the AMA (or ABA for lawyers), a national body that can take stands, buffer members, and call BS on the nonsense on stilts that too often passes for deliberation in crim just policymaking. The leaders of that body are the ones who will need to do the public outreach and aggressively promote "what works" against challengers who push the cj equivalent of blood-letting to cure the problems. Having a chairperson of sufficient skill and personality to handle the media and legislatures would be an added plue. But this would provide the missing link to the "enabling users" piece, the missing authoritative infrastructure that is needed to change the equation between those users and what we provide. It might take a generation to reach the same point as engineers and physicians, but as an eternal optimist I think it can be done.

But how? Universities and crim programs could take the lead, maybe those "law and society" programs we've talked about here before. But why should they? UMD turns people away or out and has more to replace them. And current faculty would have to scrap or revamp their current activities and interests. We'd lose more than we gain from that.

No, new programs designed specifically for criminal justice policy and administration would have to be developed, staffed by the Kim Hunts, Mark Bergstroms, Rick Kerns, the Chip Coldrens, Stan Orchowskys,the Kim Englishs out there with both the experience and credentials to lead the way. To convince universities to start these programs, either the feds would need a new LEAA-type initiative (only we old-timers don't have to go to a search engine right now), or one of the recently interested non-profits like Soros or Pew would need to be willing to endow programs and positions. The realist in me says the feds don't have the money or interest, and the foundations are still too subject to the old criticisms that they're only interested in funding specific projects to promote their strict top-down objectives. But maybe I'm wrong (I thought the Bears would kill the Cardinals). Maybe they would pursue a broader, open-ended agenda. Or maybe there's an academic entrepreneur out there with enough energy and clout to get it rolling (you listening, Berman?).

My point is just that we're not the first group of well-trained and experienced folks who had trouble getting "what works" out there and overcoming long practice backed by inertia, tradition, and fear. There are successful models to follow. As with everything, it will take will and money, but frankly more of the first than the second. We're not far away from a viable answer, but we have to look in its direction and decide to move that way. We know how to get there.

Or, as a very wise woman once said, "We know what works."

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