THE TIME IS RIGHT
It is difficult to find a criminologist, practitioner, policymaker, psychologist, economist, sociologist, or epidemiologist satisfied with the criminal justice system as it stands today. Furthermore, the timing for introducing broad changes in the system could not be more propitious. The opinion of Ruth and Reitz (2003) exemplifies this point of view: “One fact bearing on the future is clear: America’s crime response strategies of the past three decades will have to change” (p. 284). Farrington and Welsh (2007), write that “the time is right.” Howell, Feld, and Mears (2012), all eminent researchers in juvenile justice and criminology, are optimistic that the timing is very good, writing that: “the period of overreaction to juvenile crime appears to be coming to a close” (p. 200). In addition, we are enjoying a lull in “get tough” rhetoric for adult offenders as well. Crime rates are low; the politics are optimal. At the time of this writing, politicians and advocates from across the country and both sides of the political spectrum are coming together to reform the criminal justice system in a way that we have not seen in the United States in decades (Apuzzo, 2014; Blades & Norquist, 2014; Hulse, 2015; Keene, 2012; Mauer, 2011; Peters, 2014; Roller, 2014). Very recently, President Obama granted clemency to 46 federal offenders, 14 of whom were serving life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and pushed for criminal justice reform; his action has met with applause.
We have a unique opportunity to make changes moving toward sustainable, long-term, improvement. After two decades of harsh punishment for all, history predicts the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction. Many other eminent criminologists have recognized the present opportunity (e.g., Losel, 2007). Those working in the juvenile justice system and those studying youthful offenders have been clamoring for prevention policies all along. Those writing about adult offenders and working in the adult system are a little bit late to the party, but they have arrived. It is time to educate those in the public who do not already know that the current system is criminogenic, unfair to the disadvantaged, inefficient, costly, and augments myriad public health problems. It is the right time for a paradigm shift in the way we address crime overall, and we hope that violent crime policy will be taken for the ride.
Farrington and Welsh (2007) argue for a permanent national strategy, spanning government agencies whose policies impact crime, such as the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Labor Department. Eminent criminologists implore policymakers to choose evidence-based options and to discontinue the practice of enacting and implementing ineffective, politically motivated laws and policies. It would not be hard; they point to examples in Canada and Sweden as models of this type of structure.
Even if federal programs were implemented, it will be necessary to change criminal justice systems in jurisdictions all over the country to effect positive change. The federal government could, however, do the leg work by creating model templates that could serve as a resource for state governments, building upon any work already done by progressive states. A move to a more holistic approach for addressing violence is unavoidable if we wish to achieve “more optimal” results.
Some might argue that crime has been declining on its own, and therefore, we do not need to do anything differently. We disagree because violent crime is not ubiquitously low—there remain many communities with substantial violent crime problems even in an era of low crime. Further, the declines in violent crime appear to be due mainly to luck. No one in the early 1990s was predicting a decline in crime—in fact, quite the opposite. Researchers were so stunned that “the great crime decline” has become its own topic of ex post facto research. No consensus has been reached in the debate about the causes of the declines in the United States or elsewhere. Many of us feel that it was precipitated because of a good economy and low unemployment. Others make the case that is was due to changes in policing (e.g., Zimring, 2011), though the crime decline occurred in places where policing strategies did not change. If the criminal justice system did have an effect, it is likely to be due mainly to more sophisticated policing, employing a more holistic approach, and not harsh sentencing. Analysts have concluded that the rise in the nation’s incarceration rate had a small beneficial impact on the crime rate, but this impact declined in magnitude as we incarcerated more and more minor offenders. Mass incarceration has now become the target of mass criticism (National Research Council, 2014). The reality is that crime goes up and down in long trends, and we have neither addressed the risk factors that cause crime, nor tailored the system for crime prevention, so we leave ourselves wide open to future spikes in crime if we do nothing now. Periods of low crime are the only time when we have the political flexibility to enact reasoned change.
Criminal justice systems tend to rely on punishment to address violence. We are not the only authors to have said that this is not the best way to prevent violent crime; we are soundly in the majority on this point. Vila (1997) writes that “One of the ironies of modern public policy is that heavy spending on the criminal justice system may, over the long term, cause an increase in crime” (p. 3) in part by “crowding out” funding for nurturant social programs (see also Gottschalk, 2015). The battle between funding prisons and colleges playing out across the country has been used as a salient example (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, 1997). In one analysis of data from 1987 to 1998, spending on corrections increased by 30% while spending on education at all levels was declining. In our nation’s capital, government expenditures on the University of the District of Columbia increased by 82% from its inception until approximately 1996, while expenditures on corrections increased 312% during that time (Ambrosio & Schiraldi, 1997). In a report on California, Connolly et al. bluntly state that Prisons are more accessible for African Americans than public universities since 1980 (Connolly, Macallair, McDermid, & Schiraldi, 1996). Almost twice as many African Americans in California were in prison than were attending a public university at that time, and the growth in imprisoned Black males from 1980 to 1996 was over 400% (8,139 to 41,434), while the increase in the number of Black males enrolled in public higher education was only 29% (6,852 to 8,810).
Is this the direction for a better, less violent society? Farrington (e.g., 2000a) has long advocated a course of prevention that identifies the risk factors for offending through empirical study in order to create prevention strategies to address those risks. Our part in this process has been, first, to point out a problem in the literature on the causes of violence: that few studies can truly be seen as tests of associations between risk factors and violence per se. Second, we nominated some good prospects for factors that might specially predict violent crime, and third, we sifted through reports of thousands of studies to see what the existing literature already tells us about those factors. We summarized those findings in Chapter 12, and here we emphasize those findings with the clearest practical policy implications.
Evidence that the current system for preventing crime does not work well is abundant. In spite of compassionate rhetoric, the system is harsh. Ruth and Reitz (2003) remark that “... the benign-sounding theories of juvenile courts and juvenile corrections have seldom been realized in practice” (p. 251) and Bernard (1992) lamented that juveniles continued to receive poor protections and poor opportunities for treatment long after reforms were made in the 1960s. Follow-up studies of juveniles who have been processed in the criminal justice system usually suggest a lack of success for these “correctional” institutions. Savage (2009) reviewed the evidence and argues that “as a rule” studies suggest that criminal justice intervention is apt to increase, rather than diminish, the chances that a young person will reoffend (p. 31). Lewis et al. reported that few of the incarcerated juveniles they followed into adulthood graduated from high school or received any real job training (Lewis et al., 1994). The subjects were unlikely to be in a long-term intimate relationship and unlikely to live with their children. Lewis et al. found that those who were placed in nurturant environments after leaving juvenile corrections, such as special schools, psychiatric hospitals, or with their families, committed fewer aggressive offenses as adults compared to those who were sent to adult prisons, group homes or disciplinary settings.
Like developmental criminologists, we have emphasized, in part, child development and the risk factors that can change a person. Like other criminologists, we also emphasize the importance of situational determinants of violence that lure otherwise nonviolent individuals into violent behavior. One aggravating fact about most developmental causes of criminality is that they can adversely impact other causes of violence, resulting in larger undesirable total effects than their simple and direct influence. For example, parental rejection and abuse may lead to peer rejection, friendships with deviant peers, school problems and alcohol use that, in their turn, lead to violence. But this property of developmental risks can also be exploited for good; successful reduction of risk factors can have an accelerated influence due to those same indirect effects (e.g., a parental sensitivity intervention can improve relations between young children and their parents, which may result in better emotion regulation and better peer relations, etc.).
Although advocates of more lenient policies like prevention are sometimes criticized for an overabundance of compassion, the hard-hearted should know that cost-benefit analyses of early intervention programs bear out compassionate instincts. Lipsey (1984) found that even an amalgam of prevention programs was cost effective when a moderately high level of treatment was sustained, and when efforts were made to contain program costs, such programs were particularly cost-effective when juvenile clients with significant delinquency risk were selected for participation.
In this chapter, we will revisit some important points from Chapters 2 and 3 and then go through our findings from the substantive Chapters 4 - 11, applying policy implications for each. At the end, we will discuss holistic approaches. To reiterate: there are long-standing cycles of compassion and harshness in our nation’s public policy that detract from crime prevention. Almost all scholars and social care professionals agree that a holistic approach addressing risk factors for prevention and applying intelligent, evidence-based policies and programs would be the best way to fight crime, violent or otherwise.