Thursday, August 5, 2010

Criminal Justice Policy and the Art of Political Survival

This blog has often addressed politically motivated knee-jerk reactions to criminal justice issues. For instance, the rush to draft more and more legislation to punish, supervise and banish sex offenders. The movement to criminalize everything from distracted driving to sexting by high school students.

Many policymakers are weary of being labeled soft-on-crime and the political repercussions that come from such a label. Political survival dictates that thoughtful, evidence based practices give way to hot-button, politically safe crime fighting efforts.

Greg Berman of the Center on Court Innovation has written a article for The Crime Report that expounds on a book he co-authored that encourages policymakers to challenge the status quo. The article is worth reading.

From The Crime Report:

Last week, UK Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt gave a wide-ranging speech about criminal justice. Toward the end of his remarks, he devoted a single paragraph to arts programming in prisons, saying, “Arts activities can play a valuable role in helping offenders to address issues such as communication problems and low self-esteem.”For the British tabloid press, Blunt’s endorsement of arts programs for inmates was a gift sent from the slow-summer-news-day gods.

The front page of the Daily Mail heaped scorn on the announcement, declaring: “Now You Pay for Prison Parties: Tory Minister Says Taxpayer Must Fund Balls and Comedy Workshops for Criminals.” The Daily Mirror, summed up the same sentiment in fewer words: “You Clown.”

Moving quickly to halt the damage, 10 Downing Street distanced itself from Blunt. A spokesperson for Prime Minister David Cameron effectively drew a line under the matter, declaring, “We just want to make it clear to the public there will be no such parties.”

In all fairness, Blunt could have easily avoided the whole incident with a quieter approach to change. But while the “prison parties” controversy is of minor consequence and will no doubt soon be forgotten by everyone (save perhaps Crispin Blunt), it does offer a telling example of how an overheated media and political culture complicates criminal justice policymaking.

Risk-Averse Policymakers

It’s as true in the United States as it is in England.

It is fair to say that many American criminal justice officials live in fear of finding themselves in a similar position to Crispin Blunt: out on an island, on the wrong side of the “tough on crime” debate. This understandable fear has broad consequences for the field of criminal justice. Among other things, it creates a risk-averse environment where both policymakers and practitioners are reluctant to challenge the status quo and test new ideas.

This is a problem that Aubrey Fox and I examine in our new book Trial and
Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure (2010: Urban Institute Press). The central argument of the book is that criminal justice officials should adopt a lesson from the field of science, embracing the trial-and-error process and talking more honestly about how difficult it is to change the behavior of offenders and reduce chronic offending in crime-plagued urban neighborhoods.

In an effort to encourage greater reflection within the field of criminal justice, Trial and Error in Criminal Justice Reform tells the stories of several criminal justice programs that have experienced both success and failure, including drug courts, Operation Ceasefire and D.A.R.E. The trials and tribulations of these programs offer a host of important lessons, highlighting the challenges of inter-agency collaboration, the difficulties of managing leadership transitions and
the gap that often exists between criminal justice researchers and practitioners.

Of all the obstacles that bedevil criminal justice reformers, none is more complex than mastering the politics of crime, particularly when the media gets involved.

In the US, there are countless examples of cities and states passing “get tough” legislation quickly on the heels of horrific local tragedies that attracted frenzied media coverage.

Unintended Consequences

These laws, which include truth in sentencing, mandatory minimums and three-strikes-and-you’re-out legislation, often have unintended consequences. For example, California’s efforts to reform its parole system and reduce the unnecessary use of incarceration have been hindered by an array of laws and ballot initiatives that have limited the flexibility and discretion of criminal justice officials.

Thankfully, some places have managed to avoid the fate of California. As we detail in our book, one such example comes from Connecticut, where state legislator Mike Lawlor found himself in the media spotlight in the aftermath of a horrible triple murder committed by two parolees who had been released from prison by the local parole board.

Local papers and elected officials clamored for someone to blame and something to do. Into this vacuum rushed advocates for ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out” legislation.

Rather than fight this movement head on, Lawlor provided the media with another target: the failure of Connecticut’s criminal justice infrastructure to communicate all of the necessary information about the parolees to the local parole board. By focusing attention on this mistake, Lawlor was able to use the media coverage to help pass nuts-and-bolts technology improvements rather than sweeping sentencing changes.

Of course, understanding the impact of media and political outrage is one thing; actually doing something about it is quite another.

For example, one criminal justice official in the United Kingdom recently acknowledged that even well-thought-out policy is often altered ”at the slightest whiff of criticism from the popular press.” He went on to promise a change from an era of policymaking with “a chequebook in one hand and the Daily Mail in the other.”

The official? None other than Crispin Blunt.

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