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January 28, 2021

Guest post: "Criminal Justice Scholarship and Reform"

6a00d83451574769e201b7c9134b4d970b-320wiI am very pleased to have the opportunity to publish this guest post from Michael Serota, who is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, an Associate Deputy Director of the Academy for Justice, and the Director of the Criminal Justice Reform Lab.  I was lucky enough to be a small part in a big project Michael has just completed, and so it is especially exciting to provide this platform for highlighting this work: 

Can scholarship improve criminal justice decisions?  That question drives Reforming Arizona Criminal Justice (RACJ), a collaborative project between the Academy for Justice and the Arizona State Law JournalRACJ is a special law review issue comprised of a dozen articles on Arizona criminal justice policy written by an interdisciplinary group of scholars (including SL&P’s own Doug Berman).  Each article offers an intimate look at an area of Arizona criminal law, provides an overview of relevant academic research, and proposes concrete recommendations for reform.  Together, the RACJ articles cover topics across all major stages of the criminal process, with an eye toward the most pressing and salient issues in Arizona.  Issues addressed by RACJ include: bail and pretrial detention, marijuana reform, expungement, sentencing reform, juvenile justice, forensic evidence, treatment of sex offenders, the policing of homelessness, public safety, private prisons, and prison oversight.

What’s unique about RACJ is the organizing principle driving the project.  We invited a diverse group of scholars from across the nation to focus their attention on the criminal law and policy issues in a single jurisdiction, and tasked them with offering targeted recommendations and specific policy guidance sensitive to legal and geographic context.  The goal is not only to persuade the government decisionmakers in that jurisdiction to move forward with reforms but also to offer them a clear sense of how to do so. 

I think of scholarship, whether in law or the social sciences, as existing on a spectrum of actionability, with the most general and abstract work on one end, and the most contextual and concrete on the other.  Valuable scholarship exists at all points along the spectrum.  That said, it seemed worthwhile, both intellectually and practically, to develop a collection of articles whose organizing principle was to push as far toward the concrete end of the spectrum as possible, with the hopes of seeing what a thoroughly actionable law review issue might look like. 

Criminal justice needs this kind of push because government decisions in this area are rarely made in the right way—that is, rationally, deliberately, and informed by expertise.    Instead of a careful weighing of costs and benefits, we’ve too often witnessed a pathological process in which all forms of expertise—and scholarly expertise in particular—have been marginalized.  (To take just one example: for decades, legislators have ratcheted punishments upward despite an academic consensus that marginal increases in sentencing severity are an ineffective way to promote public safety.)  And the consequences have been horrifying: mass imprisonment concentrated on our most vulnerable populations, and racial disparities that defy belief. 

Thankfully, we’re undergoing a societal reckoning during which increasing numbers of government officials seem interested in replacing this afactual, tough-on-crime decision-making calculus with something smarter.  But making smarter decisions requires better information, and criminal justice scholarship should be a critical part of that.  That said, hurdles to entry may put topically relevant academic work out of reach.  Aside from the obvious challenges (length, jargon, etc.), criminal justice scholarship typically offers conclusions pitched in the most general and universal terms, while focusing on the conceptual “U.S. criminal justice system,” or the very real but very distinctive “federal criminal justice system.”  In contrast, it is our many individual state and local criminal justice systems that brought us mass incarceration.  So it will be the distinct policy decisions made by the government actors that populate these systems that will need to lead us out of it.  Hopefully, the production of rigorous yet accessible scholarship, sensitive to the on-the-ground realities in these states and localities and filled with concrete recommendations, will help promote better outcomes.

One would be hard-pressed to find a better place to attempt this kind of project than Arizona.  In a nation that leads the world in incarceration, Arizona has the country’s fifth highest imprisonment rate.  Over the past four decades, prison populations throughout the United States expanded by 400%—but in Arizona, they exploded by around 1200%.  And most of this growth occurred while crime went down in the state.  What we’re left with is a prison population of more than 40,000 Arizonans.  And the situation is even worse than it seems because a disproportionate number of those trapped in the Arizona criminal justice system are also among the most vulnerable: the poor, the underserved, and minorities.  And, as the collection of RACJ articles reveals, Arizona appears to be more resistant to criminal justice reform efforts than other jurisdictions of similar size, resources, and political orientation.

So why, then, might one think that accessible, targeted scholarship could actually improve criminal justice decision-making—whether in Arizona or elsewhere?  Let me end with a couple of reasons for optimism.  Prior to entering academia, I spent six years working on criminal justice reform for the District of Columbia’s local government.  Time and again during this period, I heard expressions of interest in, but lamentations about the absence of, actionable scholarship.  Public servants who wake up every day thinking about how to improve a particular area of policy are, in my experience, inherently interested in what others with relevant expertise have to say about it.  Their question is simply this:  Are those experts speaking our language, and is what they’re saying sufficiently attuned to the diversity of factors bearing on the decisions I have to make?  

I also believe that, in Arizona, there is particular interest in hearing from experts who are attuned in this way.  Prior to undertaking this project, in the fall of 2019, I met with a wide range of Arizona criminal justice stakeholders to learn about the most pressing policy issues facing the state.  Over the course of these discussions, it became clear that there is a marked desire for research, but that written policy analyses of criminal justice issues are few and far between.  All too often, bills are proposed (and enacted) in Arizona without any meaningful written work product to support them.  At the same time, criminal justice debates in Arizona are more frequently centered around claims about evidence and data, alongside an omnipresent sense that Arizona’s policy challenges are unique in ways that generalized research might not be able to capture.  So, hopefully, a collection of evidence-driven, Arizona-focused scholarship will be a welcome addition to the criminal justice reform efforts happening around the state.

For those interested, here’s a list of the articles and participants:

The articles, along with executive summaries and other project-related multimedia, can be found at the Reforming Arizona Criminal Justice site.

January 28, 2021 at 10:23 AM | Permalink


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