Friday, May 7, 2010

Sherman Introduces Crime Harm Index

Interview with Lawrence Sherman, Ph.D. — Less Prison, More Police, Less Crime: How Criminology Can Save the States from Bankruptcy

This five-part interview followed the presentation "Less Prison, More Police, Less Crime: How Criminology Can Save the States from Bankruptcy" given as part of NIJ's Research for the Real World Seminar Series by Lawrence Sherman, Ph.D.
•Segment 1: The "Power Few" and "Push-Button" Criminology
•Segment 2: The Crime Harm Index
•Segment 3: Crime and Justice Research Needs to Evaluate Cost-Effectiveness
•Segment 4: The Role of the Federal Government in Solving Crime and Justice Problems
•Segment 5: Criminological ForecastingThe "Power Few" and "Push-Button"
(You can link to the video below)

CriminologyLawrence Sherman: The concept of the power of few is absolutely critical to criminal justice policy. It means that a very small proportion of the units in any population is accounting for a very high proportion of whatever problem or opportunity you're trying to deal with. It's the frequent flyers who drive the airline industry. It's the repeat offenders who commit the majority of the offenses. It's the hot spots of crime where the majority of the crimes occur, and once we identify these high-risk targets, we can completely transform the entire enterprise of crime prevention just as businesses have done very successfully. But we haven't really made the most of power few yet, so that's why we have to keep talking about it even though people say, "Yeah, I understand that." Yeah, but why don't we do something about it? That's the question.
Push-button criminology identifies the buttons that a governor can push, or even a prosecutor, maybe even the President of the United States, in the same way that push-button economics tries to deal with depressions and recessions.

Paul Krugman says that the discipline of economics was all very interesting, but it didn't have any buttons to push when the Great Depression hit. And what John Maynard Keynes did was to transform a very interesting field into a very useful field by identifying the buttons that governments could push to try to get the economy restarted. And so he talked about deficit financing, and interest rates and the supply of money as all being critical to creating more consumer demand, which would then drive up the employment rate.

So his model of the buttons to push when economies get into trouble got discredited when they pushed too many buttons in that direction and caused inflation in the '70s, and Keynes fell out of fashion until the Lehman Brothers bust of 2008. And now Keynes is a very popular fellow in Washington because it seems that all the buttons that we could push in the wake of that were the ones that everybody agreed to push with the Recovery Act and the stimulus package and so on. It's all Keynes. It's all inconceivable before Keynes because nobody ever thought that it was legal or wise for governments to do those kinds of things.

We've got a sentencing policy in this country right now that has the highest incarceration rates in history. We still have too much violent crime. Maybe we don't have enough police. The question of how you push these buttons and who can push them has never really been raised before. And what I think criminology can do for the states, and the cities and the nation is to talk much more about the relative investment between the different parts of the criminal justice portfolio and to ask systematic questions about whether we're putting too many people in prison and we don't have enough police on the streets, and whether we need to reconfigure the way we do our sentencing and our prosecution and even the arrest policies of the police in a way that emphasizes much more about prevention through visibility, and police patrol and problem solving, and much less about incapacitation. except to the extent that we would incapacitate the right kind of people, the power few who are posing the greatest harm that will drive the nation's fear of crime and the suffering from crime in a way that we're not even tabulating right now with the crime rate.

Part of the idea of push-button criminology is to put together all of the decisions that affect criminal justice at the local, state and national level. And because different decision-makers have different parts of the investment portfolio in criminal justice, they don't think about it as a total portfolio. The only people who should think about it are the taxpayers, who have to pay local, state and federal taxes. And it's in our interests to get the overall portfolio in the right balance between prison and policing. Policing is primarily a local cost. In recent years it's had some federal input, but it's a tiny fraction of all of the police costs. Governors don't think about police costs because they have to run a state where the police are all local but they've got to pay for the prison system.

So nobody is being given an accountable blame for getting the portfolio investment wrong, and I think that's the unique role of federal leadership in a place like NIJ to start talking about that and to suggest that the governors ought to get a handle on this as something that they can do if only to get their own prison populations down, not because it will save money, which is a really disastrous political approach, but because it will reduce crime. If the state can figure out how to cut the prison population, save that money and invest it in local policing, I think you've got much greater chances of success than simply releasing thousands of inmates before the end of their term willy-nilly.

[End of video clip]
The Crime Harm IndexLawrence Sherman: When people see different crime rates, they tend to ask whether they're going up or down. They don't ask the question that is important, which is, "How does it all add up?" So if we multiply a murder by the cost that murder entails, and lifetime earnings or any other metric, and compare that to a burglary or to a car break-in, we see the price of those crimes is very different, or the impact, the harm they've caused is very different. If we could agree on what the price list is or the amount of harm is for each of those, and then multiply every time that crime occurs by that value, what we could see is that it could take 50,000 break-ins or 100,000 to make up for one murder. And so the murder rate, which is the most visible and the most reliable crime rate, certainly gets a lot of attention at the moment, but if it's up or down a little bit, it may not reflect the overall amount of harm that society is suffering.

So it's kind of like the gross domestic product, is another way to think about it. When we have people who are unemployed, they're not making things; they're not producing services or goods. And all of that gets reflected in the growth rate of the economy. So everybody knows that China's growth rate was steadily rising while we were tanking during the last two years. But they don't know that about crime, and they don't know that because we don't tell it to them. So my challenge to the Bureau of Justice Statistics today is to get on the stick and develop a crime harm index that could take the most reliable data and explain to a grateful nation exactly how in totality the crime situation is doing — getting better or worse.

[End of video clip]
Crime and Justice Research Needs to Evaluate Cost-EffectivenessLawrence Sherman: Researchers want to know what works to solve problems, and when they see in an experiment or some other research that a policy that is different from the one we're doing now does a whole lot better — it has a big effect — that's what they get excited about. When we do systematic reviews, we report effect size. We don't report a cost effect size or a cost-benefit ratio. I have not seen a systematic review that compares policies on the basis of cost benefit, just on the magnitude of the raw effect size.

So I think what we've got to do, and I hope NIJ can take the lead on this, is to put much more pressure on researchers to include cost data in their studies and research grants, to have cost estimates and effect sizes adjusted by the cost involved, because once we do that, we begin to get much more realistic about how much crime prevention we can afford, how much we want to spend on it. Governor Schwarzenegger wants a constitutional amendment to limit the prison budget to the budget of the University of California. That's the kind of context of the cost of criminal justice which had been rising faster than anything else except health, at least in the state budgets, and that's almost all in prisons. But we have to put in the context of 100,000 to 300,000 teachers being laid off — which the secretary of education predicts for this coming year — is that because we're putting too much into criminal justice? It's hard to compare the cost-effectiveness of primary education to the cost-effectiveness of prison, but that's the kind of thing we're going to have to do to have a meaningful democratic deliberation about how we want to invest our scarce tax dollars.

I argue that using our current research on prisons and police would tell us that we'll get a lot more benefit out of prisons if we limit them to the most dangerous people, the people who are, with new techniques, now predictable to be the Willie Hortons of the future. And if we restrict prison to the incapacitation of those people for a long period of time, we can be very confident that that will be the result for those people. Right now the evidence suggests that there's a lot of people being put in prison to protect us from crimes that they're never going to commit and that we have spent money on doing that — putting people in prison who aren't that dangerous — that we could have been spending on police who could prevent more crimes out on the street if they were in the hot spots, if they were doing the problem solving that the research shows is effective.
So at 35,000 per prisoner who's locked up who doesn't need to be there, that's close to the salary of a police officer who could be out there deterring hundreds of crimes a year. There's not that many offenders who are going to commit hundreds of crimes a year — there's a few — but even they aren't the ones who are going to be committing mass murder or horrible crimes against children, and with the capacity to combine the prediction of very serious crime with the prediction of huge benefits from policing, I think we have the data right now that says, let's reconfigure this portfolio, reduce your investment in prisons, increase your investment in policing, and then manage the investments much more aggressively in the direction of the strategies that are effective.

[End of video clip]
The Role of the Federal Government in Solving Crime and Justice ProblemsLawrence Sherman: I think that the federal government role is crucial, and it's been a consensus on both the right and the left in criminal justice policy for a long time, that only the federal government has the economies of scale to do the kind of research and development that could transform local and state criminal justice operations, and that is something that I think we still need to work on. And at this time, with the bankruptcy of excessive prison costs creating the opportunity, I think the federal role could be much more clear. And in a historic effort, the Obama administration could go right from health care to criminal justice to helping to change the paradigm — to help us think about criminal justice as a multi-governmental effort that has to be integrated, especially at the state and local level, and to get the actors involved to be under more transparent political accountability for getting that balance right.

I think when we have this discussion, a lot of people will come together right around this notion of reducing the prison costs in order to drive up the police budget and to make policing more effective. I think that's the formula. It's not just about the latest research on prisons, the latest research on policing. It's about seeing the connections between these two in order to make a fundamental leap forward in federal leadership of criminal justice policy and the buttons that we need to push.

[End of video clip]
Criminological ForecastingLawrence Sherman: A lot of what I'm saying depends on the accuracy of forecasting, and simply because of weather forecasts and other experience people have had, they tend to be a bit skeptical because there is a range of error around any forecast. When the RAND Corporation developed the idea of selective incapacitation with NIJ grants 30 years ago and recommended that we try to use prison much more selectively to keep the prison population down — to keep the cost down — the National Academy of Sciences review panel was very skeptical because they thought the false-positive rates, the errors would be way too high.
And the tragedy is that by keeping our hands clean, criminology stayed away from decisions that judges and prosecutors and police were going to make anyway. And when they made those decisions without guidance from criminology, what they decided to do was to play it safe and to put as many people in prison as possible. And so 500 percent growth in the prison population later, I think it's time for criminology to ask, "Do we want to get our hands dirty? Do we want to make the best predictions that we can make even if they're going to have error?" Because those predictions will be much more accurate than people looking at a rap sheet and saying, "This guy's dangerous; lock him up," when in fact his first offense was not until age 21 or it's all been property offenses. The cost-effectiveness of locking that person up as opposed to keeping close tabs on him out on the street would be very low.

We now, I think, have to accept that the prediction tools have gotten a lot better — we have supercomputers, we have vast databases that are comparable to the weather forecasting databases. Weather forecasting has gotten twice as accurate in the last 20 or 30 years than it was beforehand. And most of us don't pay any attention to that sort of thing. But just compare it to volcano prediction, and you'll see how much better weather forecasting is than other kinds of forecasting. And crime is getting very close to at least a weather forecast for the next day, or at least for the next 12 hours. If you're going to look in the short term like, in the next two years, is this person going to commit a horrible crime of the kind that we absolutely have to protect the public against? We can make those kinds of forecasts with much better accuracy than judges and prosecutors are making by the seat of their pants. And I think the prosecutors, when given the opportunity to base those decisions on those models, will be grateful to have something to hang their hat on as opposed to having to take all of the blame and get none of the help that criminology can offer.

To link to the interviews:

This five-part interview followed the presentation "Less Prison, More Police, Less Crime: How Criminology Can Save the States from Bankruptcy" given as part of NIJ's Research for the Real World Seminar Series by Lawrence Sherman, Ph.D.

" gratefully acknowledges the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, for allowing us to reproduce, in part or in whole, the video Less Prison, More Police by Dr. Lawrence Sherman. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this video are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice."

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