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July 16, 2010

"Trial and Error in Criminal Justice: Learning from Failure"

Trial-and-error_1 The title of this post is the title of this new book authored by Greg Berman (no relation) and Aubrey Fox available from the Urban Institute Press.  Here is a brief summary from the press website:

When it comes to criminal justice reform, neither citizens nor officials have endorsed the view that problems are solved iteratively. Reluctance to be associated with programs judged failures has stifled innovation and kept criminal justice reformers spinning their wheels.

Trial and Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure argues that public policies cannot be neatly divided into successes and failures.  The book examines well-intended programs that for one reason or another fell short of their objectives (D.A.R.E. and Operation Ceasefire being prime examples) yet also had positive effects.  Greg Berman and Aubrey Fox tell the stories of committed reformers — judges, cops, attorneys, parole officers, researchers, educators, and politicians — who, despite their knowledge and ambition, did not quite achieve their goals.  They introduce readers to a parole officer who has to make a tough judgment call, a legislator who endures political pressure to rewrite sentencing laws, a judge who attempts a new response to drug offenses despite local resistance, and many others.

I have had a chance to read parts of this book already, and I find it fascinating.  Here also is a comment about some of the themes of this important book that I received from one of the authors:

The vast majority of what police, prosecutors, defenders, correctional officials, probation officers and judges do on a daily basis is not supported by strong, scientific evidence.

Indeed, there is an enormous gulf between frontline criminal justice practitioners and social science researchers.  One sign of this is the field's resistance to the scientific method — the process of trial and error.  In general, criminal justice officials don't feel they have the latitude to talk honestly about a simple reality: new initiatives are just as likely to fail as they are to succeed.

This is a point that Aubrey Fox and I make in Trial and Error in Criminal Justice: Learning from Failure.  Over the course of researching the book, we learned a number of important lessons, including the challenge that criminal justice officials face in trying to meet the often-unrealistic expectations of elected officials and the general public.  There are no silver bullets when it comes to changing the behavior of offenders or reducing crime in hard-hit urban neighborhoods.

But perhaps the most important lesson we learned is that the closer one looks, the harder it is to draw a clear, defining line between what works and what doesn't in criminal justice. Initiatives like drug court and Operation Ceasefire that succeed spectacularly in one place can fail miserably in another.  Even the drug prevention DARE, which is almost universally reviled by researchers, has achieved some positive results in some jurisdictions.

In a perfect world, it would be nice to be able to make black-and-white judgments about reforms....  But like so much of life, criminal justice is dominated by shades of grey. Acknowledging this reality is crucial if we ever hope to have an honest, rational conversation about criminal justice policy in this country.

July 16, 2010 at 03:22 PM | Permalink


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Here is a reliable finding, not at all experimental, in absolute black and white. It has greater reliability than planetary orbits, which can vary by a meter or more due to gravitational effects of unseen objects. This has 100% reliability, greater than any other measurable effect in nature.

123D. The deceased will have a low recidivism rate.

These hand wringing, sinecure sitting, Twilight Zone freak, lawyer dumbasses will never acknowledge the self-evident.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 17, 2010 12:51:43 AM

"The vast majority of what police, prosecutors, defenders, correctional officials, probation officers and judges do on a daily basis is not supported by strong, scientific evidence."

Disagree. There is tremendous evidence supporting what they do. What they do intentionally maintains a high crime rate, decade after decade, herded into minority neighborhoods. It maintains lawyer jobs. It is highly toxic to our economy.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 17, 2010 12:55:12 AM

There is no trial and error going on. The lawyer has set the crime rate at 23 million a year, and the murder rate at 17,000. There is an internal debate going on in the hierarchy as to whether it is too low. The SC has sided with those arguing it is too low. They struck down the guidelines, which caused a 40% drop in crime across the board. This is not a natural experiment. It is a remedy to lawyer unemployment, a huge problem for the criminal cult enterprise.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 17, 2010 6:25:04 PM

Spot on.

Posted by: k | Jul 17, 2010 8:57:00 PM

looking to see who is out there to help with looking at a case i have of a friend. he's been locked up for 10 years and has 15 more to go. there was a doctor that could have helped him win his case but the da nor his lawyer had him to come to court. they took the word of another doctor. and he didn't even say what was in his report, he was the er doctor not the doctor who took care of the victim. in the court transcript his lawyer even said the da only had the er doctor there because the other doctor would not say it was that bad. so the question is why didn't his lawyer get them there if they new that and isn't that not giving him a fair trail when you know someone can help win your case for you

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