Friday, November 03, 2006

Does Criminal Justice Work?

Via NIC's Corrections Community blog, I've been reading a report of the British Crime and Society Foundation--Does Criminal Justice Work? Its basic premise is that traditional crim just record keeping and data collection miss so many offenses that, if you look at reality, there's no way you'd accept their current system as successful. So then what do you do?

Reading it, I remembered the days when I served a nine-year sentence to a school board. Over and over, as we tried to make our system better in the face of SOPs, sunk costs, and a public that all thought they were experts in education, I would ask myself, "If we had to start all over (crash-landed on a deserted island with this mysterious portal . . . sorry), would we do this?" Summers off to forget half of what students learned, negotiated pay scales that negotiation any new salary dollars away from our low starting salaries, etc. The answer was clearly no. The only mystery was how much, if any, of the existing process, infrastructure, personnel and training we would keep.

It's the same with criminal justice, as is made clear in the essays in this report. We do so many things that have no empirical support (see, Kansas City, patrol experiment) or actually have been shown to be counterproductive and cost-ineffective simply because of tradition and investment. The sunk costs and infrastructure of our current process are too enormous now, and professional investment guarantees no serious change. Seriously, what would happen to so many of us if we actually did stop crime tomorrow? Without "bad guys" to fuel our heroic narratives of ourselves and our jobs, how would we function? Crime and victim prevention, therefore, may be in society's interest, but it's not in ours.

Cynical? I prefer "realistic."

This report is a nice start at changing the perspective, at least in the UK, from my cynicism. It acknowledges the profound limits of what any crim just system is able to accomplish, especially in a free society, acknowledges the complexity of the phenomena (as in "complexity theory") and the lack of consensus on policy among all these folks who consider themselves experts. It even gives a word to Tony Blair, architect of Britain's "surveillance society," builder of Orwell's infrastructure there, who of course thinks the system he's built is peachy. He's wrong, as all the essays before his make clear.

Could we have a similar report done here in the US? I doubt it, and it would be hammered on all sides if we did. The report says the system is inadequate and failing and needs better social support. Some of the authors fear that admission would lead to even more "crime wave" hysteria and reaction. Others look at its emphasis on society's role in restricting its own criminogenic environment and think we'd be saying individuals aren't responsible. IOW, the same old tired, short-sighted, ideological same old on all sides that balls up serious action on crime every time.

So this kind of report probably wouldn't even happen here, much less have great impact. But I'd like to see us do it anyway. I'd like to see it sponsored by a major university that would then use it as the basis for the Law and CJ Policy grad program I've advocated here that would professionalize our research and analysis and prescribe Best Practices, with standards and accountability to match. Maybe Boalt could step beyond its tentative efforts with its law and social policy doctoral option. Or Yale or Stanford. Or some state school looking for a way to establish prominence and leadership in a vital area of American law and policy.

So, see? I'm really a hopeless idealist, right? Maybe so. I just know that our process is trapped in a negative feedback loop right now, a "strange attractor" as they say in chaos theory, that needs an outside jolt to shock it out of its counterproductive equilibrium. That's clearly what the Crime and Society Foundation is trying to do in Britain. Maybe a Foundation could endow that ambitious state law school here. The attractor we keep cycling over and over is ultimately an unsustainable drain of our nation's resources, future, and dreams. Let's hope Britain pays attention to this report and develops a model that someone here will pick up on.

Those of us inside the box will not think outside it.

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