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March 27, 2024

Lots of perspectives at Vital City around criminal justice research

This new issue of the journal Vital City has a large collection of essays engaging with the rich topic of criminal justice research and practice.  There are too many intriguing pieces to flag or summarize them all here, but this Editors’ Note by Elizabeth Glazer and Greg Berman sets up the context and much of what follows. Here is an excerpt:

Starting in earnest during the Clinton administration, there has been a concerted effort by a range of important actors to try to encourage “evidence-based” criminal justice policy and programs — a phrase at once hilarious and poignant....

But the phrase does have a meaning, if coded.  The subtext, rarely spoken aloud, is an attempt to reduce the temperature of the public discourse about criminal justice, moving policymaking away from the realm of politics and into the realm of science as much as possible.  In the years before evidence-based reform emerged as a concept, high-profile tragedies — cases of child abduction or random murders — had been used to make the case for more punitive lawmaking throughout the country. At the federal level, the infamous Willie Horton campaign advertisement in 1988 performed similar work.

The evidence-based policy movement, in criminal justice and other fields, sought to move away from such demagoguery.  During the era of reduced crime that began in the 1990s, it proved reasonably successful. “Follow the data” became a rallying cry that appealed to both Democrats and Republicans.  One sign of the movement’s success was the creation of CrimeSolutions.gov, a website administered by the U.S. Department of Justice that summarizes academic research in an effort to help policymakers and practitioners figure out which criminal justice programs and practices work and which do not.

Recent years, however, have seen the emergence of a palpable backlash to the evidence-based movement.  Perhaps the most extreme expression of this backlash has been the argument by prison abolitionists and other radical activists that the evidence-based paradigm “strengthens the influence of neoliberalism, punitive impulses, and white supremacy over criminal system policy and procedure.”  They point to the fact that the United States is still plagued by levels of violence, racial disparities and incarceration rates that dwarf peer nations.  What use is social science evidence if it cannot prevent, or meaningfully ameliorate, these kinds of problems?

Earlier this year, Megan Stevenson, an economist at the University of Virginia Law School, published an essay in the Boston University Law Review raising further questions about evidence-based reform.  In “Cause, Effect, and the Structure of the Social World,” Stevenson reviews a half-century of randomized controlled trials (“RCTs” are known as the “gold standard” of social science) and finds that, “Most reforms and interventions in the criminal legal space are shown to have little lasting impact when evaluated with gold-standard methods of causal inference.”  For Stevenson, this is a reflection of the immutable social structures of the world that make change hard to engineer, at least when using the kinds of “limited-scope interventions” that lend themselves to randomized trials.  Provocatively, Stevenson argues that it may be necessary to abandon narrow, evidence-based reform and instead “seek systemic reform, with all its uncertainties.”

Stevenson’s essay got us thinking.  Is the notion that we can meaningfully address social problems a myth?  Does it really make sense to rely on evidence to guide policy?  And if so, what should this look like?

At the same time, our friends at Hypertext, the journal of the Niskanen Center — recently named the “most interesting think tank in American politics” by Time magazine — were wrestling with similar questions. So we decided to join forces. Together, we asked more than a dozen leading scholars, philanthropists, journalists and government policymakers to discuss the role of evidence in policymaking, using Stevenson’s article as a jumping-off point. The result of this exploration makes up the bulk of this issue of Vital City.

March 27, 2024 at 10:36 PM | Permalink


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