WHEN it comes to criminal justice, Winston Churchill’s saying that Americans can be relied on to do the right thing after they have tried everything else has to be modified: the right thing tends to get its day only when states run out of cash. A squeezed budget is one reason why Los Angeles County’s DA, Steve Cooley, is hostile to three strikes laws. Lack of money also explains why Republicans in South Carolina are considering a halt to imprisoning non-violent drug offenders. Sending someone to prison at a cost to the taxpayer of some $50,000 a year for trying to steal $29 worth of plumbing supplies is not only a daft idea; it is strictly a bull-market approach to criminal justice.
With some unlikely people now receptive to the idea that it would be good to imprison fewer people, a new book looking at failed experiments in criminal justice over the past decade or so is well timed. The premise of “Learning from Failure” by Greg Berman and Aubrey Fox of New York’s Center for Court Innovation is that research into criminal justice suffers because so much attention is paid to programmes that succeeded and so little to the flops. The effect is familiar to pharmaceutical companies: a handful of successful drug trials get headlines while thousands of failures, with all the promising hypotheses they entail and data that they can yield, are forgotten.
The authors try to correct this bias by examining six programmes that excited lots of interest from fellow researchers (and even from the White House) but ultimately failed. A handful of problems recur, killing off the best experiments:
1. Promising programmes can be sabotaged by police departments.
The St. Louis police force ran a scheme in which officers went to houses and asked permission to search them for stolen or unregistered firearms. In exchange for co-operation, the officers explained, the search would not result in a prosecution, even if drugs or stolen goods were discovered. Parents in crime-ridden neighbourhoods were delighted to have gun-free homes and sometimes asked officers to come back next week and look again. 98% of those who were asked allowed the police to enter their homes, with the result that in 1994 the small unit running the programme seized 402 guns. This cost much less than an earlier programme of gun buybacks and did not result in people selling their guns to the police force and then going and buying better ones with the proceeds.
But “Consent to Search” in St. Louis was killed by a change in personnel at the top of the police department, and the officer responsible for creating it was reassigned. By the time anyone noticed what had happened it was too late. An attempt to recreate the programme was ill-thought through and so it died a second death.
2. Good schemes can wither when transplanted.
Drug courts are one of the most promising recent ideas in criminal justice. For non-violent drug users, conventional courts tend to lead to a cycle of drugs/court appearances/more drugs/more court appearances/some petty theft/prison/some less petty theft. This is unjust and expensive. A drug court presided over by a paternalistic judge, who can sentence non-violent drug users to mandatory treatment programmes and monitors their progress, with the threat of imprisonment as a sanction, can get better (and ultimately cheaper) results. The authors cite a study that suggests that every dollar spent on drug courts accrues a saving of $2.21. While it is possible to pick holes in such estimates, the point holds: not sending people to prison saves money
Yet the idea flopped in Minneapolis and in Denver. The reason, the authors reckon, is that the drug courts were overly dependent on a single charismatic judge who started them up. The programmes suffered when these judges moved on. They had failed to win over the police, prosecutors and journalists, who observed that the scumbags were never sent to prison. Stories of violent dealers being sentenced to treatment abounded, and the drug courts in Minneapolis and Denver withered.
3. Fights over who should take the credit for success can kill a programme.
Operation Ceasefire was launched in Boston in 1995 at a time when the city police were being called out to six or seven shootings a night. In what is perhaps the best example of criminologist as crime fighter, a group of Harvard academics crunched the numbers and realised that 1% of young people in the city were responsible for 60% of youth homicides. The police often knew who these people were and a strategy was put in place: officers would go after these people for any violations they could, from parking fines to petty theft, harassing them until the murders stopped. (This plan may be familiar to people who watched “The Wire”—David Simon, the main writer on the series, was a crime reporter in Baltimore in the mid-1990s.)
The results were striking: homicides in Boston dropped from 152 in 1990 to 31 in 1999. Operation Ceasefire was imitated in other cities. A priest involved in its implementation was hailed as the “Saviour of the Streets” in a Newsweek cover article. But at the height of its fame a vicious squabble broke out: who deserved credit for Ceasefire? Amid the squabbling, the programme imploded in the city that had invented it. Boston’s murder rate subsequently climbed between 1999 and 2005.
4. Many of the problems eating criminal justice in America stem from a wholesale transfer of power to the legislative branch.
Since the 1980s America has fallen into a pattern when it comes to sentencing. A horrible crime is committed. Politicians call for new tough laws, tougher than the last set of tough laws, to make sure nothing of the sort will ever happen again. Sometimes the new law is lent the name of the victim (Megan, Kendra and Laura all have eponymous laws). Three-strikes laws exacerbate the problem. The whole process is repeated again and again, with the result that judges often have no discretion as to how offenders are punished and America sends nine times more people to prison (as a share of its population) than Germany.
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Mike Lawlor, a Conneticut state senator, successfully fought off a ballot initiative to bring in a three-strikes law after a particularly horrible triple-murder in 2007. With the blessing of the family’s sole survivor, Mr Lawlor pointed out that a three-strikes law would not have prevented the crime; that the state could not afford to build the prison places it would need if the ballot initiative passed; and that the whole idea was a distraction from the real failure, which was that the parole board had not been handed a report that would have told its members that the man they were about to release early for good behaviour was considered extremely dangerous. Mr Lawlor won the argument and the law was never passed.
“Learning from Failure” aims to prompt changes in America but it has lessons for other countries too. Aubrey Fox, one of the authors, is in London at the moment trying to create a British branch of the Center for Court Innovation. The authors are careful to temper expectations about what enlightened schemes can achieve. Their book cites Joan Petersilia of Stanford to the effect that, “there is nothing in our history of over 100 years of reform that says we know how to reduce recidivism by more than 15 or 20 percent.” In a country as keen on prison as America, that’s still a lot of people.
Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2010/08/criminal_justice