Criminology and Public Policy

Todd R Clear & Natasha A Frost. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009. Sage Publication.

Criminology would seem to have a natural connection to public policy. Many, if not most, of the questions that criminologists seek to answer directly or indirectly impact questions of public policy. Criminologists seek to understand the nature and extent of crime, to explain why people commit crime, and to advance knowledge as to how crime might be prevented. Policymakers seek to address an array of social problems, including the problem of crime. Despite this seemingly natural connection, the field of criminology has had an uneasy relationship with public policy and has had somewhat less of a direct effect on matters of public policy than some might expect.

There have been some notable instances in which criminological research has impacted public policy. For example, Lawrence Sherman’s randomized field study in Minneapolis (often referred to as the Minnesota Domestic Violence Study), which focused on policing domestic violence, led to widespread reforms in the way that police departments responded to domestic violence calls (Sherman et al., 1999). The work of George Kelling and his colleagues as they developed the “broken windows” model of policing similarly led to important changes in police strategies, first in New York City and later in other major jurisdictions. More recently, the research of Joan Petersilia (2008) has led to the adoption of “earned discharge” parole in California. Although there are a number of instances in which criminological work has directly impacted policy, much of the policy-relevant criminological research has had little to no measurable effect on public policy. This lack of effect can be attributed in part to the reluctance among some academics to engage directly in the policy arena. In a provocative essay lamenting criminology’s irrelevance, James Austin (2003) argued that “in terms of having any effect on criminal justice policy, there is little evidence that any criminologist’s career has made much of a difference” (p. 558).

Although criminology’s policy impact has been largely inconsequential to date, there have been renewed calls for a policy-oriented approach in criminology. Leading criminologist Ronald Clarke (2004) proposed that the field of criminology be reconfigured as a field of “crime science” that has as its main focus studying crime in ways that inform policy. Prominent criminological theorists David Garland and Richard Sparks (2000) suggested that the coming generation of criminology be one that takes the problem of crime as a serious concern, with a renewed commitment to reducing the impact of crime on everyday lives.

The Emergence of Criminology

Criminology began as a theoretically oriented field of study. Notably, the early criminologists were drawn from various disciplines (sociology, psychology, medicine) and would likely not have self-identified as “criminologists.” Nonetheless, early writers about the social science of crime, such as Émile Durkheim (in the field of sociology), sought to explain the existence of crime in society. Durkheim and others also set out to explain patterns of crime through the examination of crime across time and place. Shortly afterward, writers sought to explain why some people engaged in crime when others did not. In the late 1800s, Cesare Lombroso, who is often referred to as the “founder of modern criminology,” launched the science of criminology through his explorations into differences between criminal and noncriminal populations. As Lombroso’s biological explanations for criminal offending waned in popularity, the Chicago School, with its ecological approach to the study of crime (and related social problems) emerged as the dominant paradigm in the 1930s and remains influential today. Between the 1930s and today, the field has experienced a proliferation of theories of crime, such that an entire college semester is no longer enough time to adequately address all of the theories that have been advanced to date. There is no one, uniform theory of crime; instead, there are multiple and competing theories. For most of criminology’s history, developing and testing these theories has been the focus of the field.

Throughout its early history, criminologists now and again have attempted to explain some of the mechanisms of justice, but this was mostly a philosophical project regarding the law. Critical theorists (e.g., Marxist theorists), for example, began to take on the justice system, in particular its relation to larger social structures and mechanisms. By and large, though, the core concern of criminology was crime and its causes.

The Influence of Criminal Justice

A somewhat radical change in this pattern occurred when the field of criminal justice, related to but distinguishable from criminology, was introduced as a separate area of study. As criminologists continued to study crime and its causes, scholars of criminal justice announced their intention to study the operations of the criminal justice system. Not merely a theoretical enterprise, the academic field of criminal justice sought to understand the problems and prospects of criminal justice, including an assessment of its effectiveness.

An assessment of effectiveness entailed necessarily a concern for how well the criminal justice system worked, which in turn implied the ability to give advice on how it should work and what might be done to increase its effectiveness. In other words, scholars of criminal justice began to enter the world of policy and practice.

The growth of academic criminal justice through the 1970s coincided with the upward spike in crime, the politicization of crime policy, and substantial growth in the size and impact of the criminal justice system. Beginning in the midto late 1960s and continuing through the early 1970s, crime rates began to rise quite rapidly. Although today there is debate about just how much crime actually increased over the period, there is little doubt that the perception that crime was increasing rapidly led to elevated fear of crime and an increasing sense of urgency regarding the problem of crime. At about the same time, the foundations of the criminal justice system’s rehabilitative orientation were being questioned, and a new approach emphasizing crime control was offered. Over this period, crime policy became highly politicized. If deemed not “tough enough” on crime, politicians usually saw their political aspirations dashed. Legislatures enacted tougher crime policies, frequently with little to no debate. The new get-tough policies frequently produced injustices (and reproduced inequalities) in ways that criminologists found increasingly troubling. Moreover, criminologists argued that a number of these initiatives were not only theoretically unsound but also ultimately counterproductive.

Increasing concern about the justice of crime policy led to an unprecedented increase in the number of scholars and students whose careers were concerned with criminal justice. Since 1980, the number of doctoral programs offering PhD degrees in criminal justice has increased dramatically, and the number of PhD graduates has increased as well, and still the market for academics remained ahead of the growth curve, as entry-level criminal justice job openings outpaced the number of new PhDs entering the market. The influence of criminal justice on the field of criminology has been quite profound.

Criminology and Criminal Justice

For some individuals there is a powerful uneasiness between those who identify themselves with the traditional (sociological) roots of criminology and its search for understanding crime and those who associate themselves with criminal justice and the search for the right policies. In particular, concern has grown around criminology’s perceived attempt to establish itself as a distinct discipline, severing its ties with sociology and other more established fields of inquiry. Joachim Savelsberg and Robert Sampson (2002), for example, expressed concern that as criminology has tried to assert its intellectual independence (and establish itself as a separate discipline), it has lost much of its academic credibility. According to Savelsberg and Sampson, part of this lost credibility can be attributed to the field’s reliance on government funding and the concomitant reliance on state definitions and ideas. Savelsberg and Sampson argued that the study of criminology is at its best when attached to another discipline and led by intellectual tradition and ideas instead of by government priorities and dollars. James Austin (2003) similarly suggested that criminology’s irrelevance can be attributed to a lack of knowledge. Although he did not explicitly advocate a return to sociological roots, Austin argued that criminologists have little “good science” to offer policymakers, in large part because of the decline of scientific methods, unbridled speculation, researcher bias, and the heavy hand of government funders in criminological research.

Other individuals see a perfect melding between criminology and criminal justice as fields of inquiry. The best illustration of this melding is the “what-works” movement and its academic sibling, evidence-based criminology. The what-works movement draws most of its momentum from the now-infamous “nothing works” proclamation made by Robert Martinson and his colleagues in a seminal article published in the mid-1970s (Miller, 1989). Martinson et al. subjected research findings in the area of correctional rehabilitation to meta-analysis, an analytical method used to summarize research findings and isolate the size of effects across accumulated research studies. They used a primitive meta-analytic technique and, on the basis of their findings, argued that there was little evidence that rehabilitative programming had any appreciable effect. Although Martinson et al. did not offer a vision for what might work in place of rehabilitation, the take-away message became that we had been too “soft” on crime, and the gap left by rehabilitation was quickly filled with a full complement of new get-tough approaches to the problem of crime. Partly in reaction to the influence of Martinson et al.’s “nothing works” article, more recent criminologists have sought to provide better evidence as to “what works,” offering prescriptions for each of the major subareas of criminal justice (crime prevention, policing, juvenile justice, and corrections, among others).

In the late 1990s, the U.S. Congress asked for a comprehensive evaluation of program effectiveness in preventing crime. Congress’s request led the National Institute of Justice to commission a study of what works in crime prevention. The study, conducted by Lawrence Sherman and colleagues (1999), involved a review of more than 500 program impact evaluations. The researchers concluded that, in terms of crime prevention, some programs appeared to be working, some clearly did not work, and others showed promise. There were a number of programs for which the jury remained out, because the impact evaluations reviewed were not sound enough to allow the researchers to draw valid conclusions. Sherman et al. ultimately recommended that the Department of Justice primarily fund program evaluations seeking to address what works, particularly in high-crime urban areas.

The what-works paradigm draws on an evidence-based criminological approach. Evidence-based criminology requires that high-quality evaluation research form the basis of policy or practice and is perhaps best exemplified by The Campbell Collaboration, a group of interdisciplinary social scientists who undertake systematic reviews of research regarding the effectiveness of various social policies and practices. The Campbell Collaboration’s systematic reviews are designed to help inform both policy and practice through pulling together and synthesizing research findings to advance our understanding of best practices.

Despite the growing popularity of evidence-based criminology and the what-works paradigm, debate remains over what should constitute “evidence” and how high the bar should be set before the social science of criminology and criminal justice might be in a position to inform public policy. Some scholars believe the bar should be set very high and that only research that relies on true experimental methods (with random assignment to experimental and control groups) meets the bar. Truly experimental research is understandably hard to come by in a field where random assignment is at best difficult to achieve and, in some cases, not possible. Consider, for example, policy-driven research examining the effectiveness of a diversion program for serious offenders. Randomly assigning some offenders to this noncustodial program and others to prison would raise ethical concerns and present some rather complicated logistical challenges.

Other scholars think that research that has been subjected to the scrutiny of others in the field through the peer review process has the capacity to inform public policy. This broader view recognizes that there are limits to what we currently know and that there are limitations to the research that criminologists conduct but advocates for a more fluid approach in which research constantly informs the process. As knowledge grows and changes, so might policy.

Criminology, Criminal Justice, and Public Policy

Today, there is a debate within criminology regarding whether, and how much, criminology (and its younger sibling, criminal justice) should seek to influence crime policy. Some have embraced a proactive policy approach, while others remain quite notably opposed.

Arguments Against Participation

Individuals who are opposed to a policy approach in the field say that (a) criminal justice is inherently political and that this politicization should be a matter of concern, (b) “evidence” in the field of criminology and criminal justice is not only nuanced but also constantly changing and therefore too fluid to be of much use, and (c) there are honest academic disputes among respected social scientists and that these disputes should be taken seriously. We present each of these arguments in turn.

Criminal Justice is Inherently Political

Criminal justice involves partisan interests, political pressure, and compromise in ways that some people say are incompatible with science. These opponents would argue that politics distorts scientific inquiry, especially when the results of science are politically unpopular. Take for example, the complicated relationship between crime and incarceration. For at least the past three decades, the war on crime (and the war on drugs and, more recently, the war on terror) have involved a get-tough orientation to addressing the problem of crime. Driven in part by increasing crime rates and in part by political and practical expediency, current strategies for addressing the problem of crime have led to unprecedented growth in the size of prison populations. Incarceration has, in some respects, been advanced as the one-size-fits-all answer to the problem of crime. Social science evidence suggests, however, that incarceration is at best limited in its ability to prevent or control crime and in some important ways problematic for crime prevention. Yet criminological research highlighting the limited impact of prison expansion policies is politically unpopular, because politicians seeking to address the concerns of their constituents see few other politically viable options.

Similarly, when studies conducted by criminologists kept finding that boot camps featuring shock incarceration as an environmental intervention did not work, a chasm grew between the research community and the policy community. Opening new boot camps across the country remained a priority of the Clinton Administration throughout Clinton’s tenure, even as study after study uncovered disappointing results. The main reaction of the policy community was to increase funding for studies of boot camps, possibly in the hopes that a new set of findings might someday emerge.

Criminological Evidence is Nuanced and Ever Changing

There is a related problem of the nature of academic evidence itself. The evidence generated through social science research is almost never definitive and almost always nuanced, yet to make evidence palatable for the policy process seems to require watering it down and removing the crucial nuances of scientific “fact.” There is a tendency for those nuances to get lost during the political process. Studies of the recidivism rate of people convicted of sexual crimes shows that the risk represented by this subgroup is complex, depending on personal background and type of offense. These nuances are typically forgotten in the policywriting process, however, and widely varying types of sex crimes are treated as identical for purposes of legal action.

Moreover, criminological evidence is constantly changing, suggesting that the knowledge within the field is a lot more dynamic than policy about crime is able to be. At one time, for example, there was a strong consensus that poverty “caused” crime, but that view has changed markedly as new evidence on the causes of crime emerge.

Nobody should be surprised if the evidentiary foundation of the field is dynamic rather than static; the purpose of criminological scholarship, after all, is to produce new evidence. To build policy on “facts” that may well be contravened by new evidence is to erect crime policy on a bed of shifting sands.

Academic Disputes among Criminologists Show Why Policy Positions Are Problematic

There are honest disputes among serious scientists about what really works and how well. The death penalty offers a good example. Although there is a growing consensus around the utility of the death penalty—with most criminologists arguing that it either does not deter crime or deters no more than a lengthy prison sentence—some criminologists continue to argue that pursuing the death penalty is worthwhile. Recently, for example, a series of empirical papers written by economists suggesting that the death penalty reduces the rate of homicide have challenged the field’s widely accepted consensus that it does not have that effect.

Serious academic disputes exist around all of the most controversial or contentious criminological debates (with gun control offering yet another example). Perhaps more surprising is that these serious academic debates also exist around questions that are more fundamental to the field. The “crime decline” experienced across the United States from the latter part of the 1990s represents the most sustained decline in crime rates in at least 50 years. Its cause has been the subject of much criminological thought, as some of the most respected criminologists in the field have advanced theories and offered evidence to support those theories. Some have argued that more aggressive policing and/or a change in the orientation of policing contributed to the crime decline. Others have argued that more strict control and regulation of guns have reduced crime (in particular, violent crime). Many of these expert opinions conflict with one another and such debates just highlight how little we actually know for sure about crime, its causes, and its prevention. As any student of criminology can tell you, there are easily as many theories of crime as there are types of crime.

Arguments in Favor of Participation

Individuals who favor greater involvement of social science in the justice policy process say that (a) policy should be based on the best available evidence, (b) avoiding involvement simply allows for false claims of evidence, (c) avoiding involvement allows gross injustices to continue, and (d) the work of criminology can influence agency practice without necessarily engaging directly in the legislative process. Again, we present each of these arguments in turn.

Policy Should Be Based on the Best Available Evidence

Policies should be based on the best available evidence, not on whatever political fancy rules the day. The only way to do that is to make the evidence available to policymakers. Thus, it falls to criminologists—and in particular, the professional organizations that represent them—to inform policymakers of the evidence. Precisely because the evidence is so often heavily nuanced, this must be done in a proactive and interactive way, not merely by publishing articles and letting the chips fall where they may. The professional associations must approach policymakers and speak to them in ways that assist policymakers in interpreting the evidence and translating that evidence into policy. Only then can policy become a reflection of evidence.

Staying Out of Policy Debates Allows Charlatans and False Claims of Evidence to Shape Them Instead

Avoiding involvement in the policy process opens the door for charlatans to take control on false claims of evidence. Washington, D.C., is filled with advocacy groups that seek to marshal evidence to support their favored policies. Often, the organization of evidence is quite slanted toward the favored policy position, ignoring studies that do not support the already-determined positions being promoted. This leads to a potpourri of policy strategies, often taking opposing positions but all citing evidence as the foundation for their claims. The role of criminology in such a setting is to help sort out the evidence, provide critical reviews of what is known, and help policymakers see which claims are most well supported by what is known and (of equal importance) what is “bunk.”

Remaining Removed from Policy Debates Leaves Gross Injustices Unaffected

To stay out of the policy process is to allow gross injustice to continue to dominate a field and to turn a blind eye to stupidity in policies. Many justice policies are, it is argued, known to be harmful. For the criminological community to remain mute when policies are proposed (or enacted) that are known to either make the problem worse or to result in untenable consequences is to tacitly participate in the perpetuation of injustice. Juvenile transfer laws, which result in charging juveniles as adults, are an excellent example, because research shows they fail to deter juvenile crime while resulting in worse treatment of juveniles under adult laws. To fail to speak out is to leave this mistreatment of youngsters unchallenged. Speaking out against unjust policies, from an informed and scientific point of view, seems an essential requirement of an ethical criminological profession. We would be shocked if, for example, the American Medical Association allowed policies to go forward without comment if they were demonstrably bad for the nation’s health. Why are we not shocked that criminologists do the same with crime policy?

There Are Good Reasons for Influencing Agency Practice

There are many ways that criminologists (and their work) can influence agency practice without having to get enmeshed in the legislative process. Joan Petersilia’s Center for Evidence-Based Corrections, housed in the University of California at Irvine, has just that mission in the California penal system. The National Institute of Corrections promulgates an annual agenda of technical assistance using some of the nation’s most well-established scholars as vehicles for improving the practice of criminal justice agencies. Many, if not most, academic criminal justice programs enjoy strong relationships with practicing criminal justice agencies, not only feeding them students but also helping them plan, implement, and evaluate new policies. To perform this kind of service is counted as a positive on the tenure and promotion requirements of many colleges and universities, and rightfully so.

Informing Public Policy

Thinking about criminology and policy today, we must begin by recognizing that the policymaking process is indeed a process, with a formal legislative course of action (bill writing, lobbying, testimony, etc.) and attendant side effects. We should also recognize that scientific opinion is actively sought in this process and that opinion will be located whether the field of criminology is comfortable with that fact or not.

Individual Participation

There are four ways that individual criminologists can take intentional action that is designed to influence policy: (1) thoroughly addressing policy implications of their research in their work, (2) working with policy-involved organizations, (3) directly inserting themselves in the policymaking process, and (4) engaging the media.

Addressing Policy Implications

Criminologists routinely seek to publish their research findings in traditional outlets (journals) and in doing so usually submit their work to the peer review process. At its best, this peer review process provides some level of assurance that the research used acceptable methods and that the findings are relatively sound. In other words, the purpose of the peer review process is to ensure that only research meeting established quality standards is published. When seeking publication in peer review publications, the focus is naturally on the research and the findings, and therefore authors are discouraged from straying too far from the facts. In other words, lengthy discussions about what the findings might mean for either policy or practice are considered polemic and are discouraged. One way in which criminologists might seek to influence policy would be through more directly addressing the policy implications of their work. Several journals have been established that explicitly focus on the policy relevance of criminological research. Although this represents a small step in the direction of informing public policy, our own experience in developing the journal Criminology & Public Policy suggests that if the field wishes to influence policy through its science, merely publishing the work of academic researchers in accessible venues will not be enough. Neither will it be enough to simply offer the media concisely written summaries of research findings with the policy prescriptions emphasized. It would seem that criminologists need to do more.

Working with Policy-Involved Organizations

A second way in which individual criminologists might become involved in the world of policy would be through working directly with policy-involved organizations. Agencies and organizations frequently seek to engage in collaborations with academic researchers to either evaluate specific programs or to put together proposals for new initiatives. A number of criminologists have made a substantial impact on criminal justice policy primarily through their working relationships with organizations and agencies that are directly involved in the criminal justice process. Joan Petersilia, for example, is well-known for her work with the California Department of Corrections and, through that work, has influenced correctional policy in California and beyond. Similarly, George Kelling, who is most well-known for his contribution to the “broken windows” model for policing, has worked closely with police departments over the years. Kelling’s work has led to the widespread adoption of the broken-windows model, not only in policing but also in other areas of the system, such as courts and corrections. In other words, working directly with the individuals responsible for administering criminal justice can have a substantial impact on policy.

Direct Engaging in the Legislative Process

The most direct way for criminologists to engage in the policy arena is through offering expert opinion at various points in the legislative process. Legislative bills do not simply become law: They are lobbied for, introduced, sent to committee, debated, and ultimately voted on. Criminologists could exert influence at many stages during this process. This influence could range from signing a petition, to sending a letter or a paper to legislators, to advising those who are drafting legislation and offering expert testimony during legislative debate. By far the most common way that criminologists insert themselves into the legislative process is through expert testimony. There is no systematic way that people are vetted for this testimony, but some criminologists are called on repeatedly to offer the legislature their understanding of the criminological wisdom of certain policies.

Engaging the Media

Experts are not only sought out for direct participation in the legislative process through testifying during hearings, they also are sought out for indirect participation in the policy process through engaging in debates that take place in the media. The power of this indirect participation to exert influence on the policy process should not be underestimated. Research suggests that the relationship among the media, politicians, and the public is a powerful one. In many ways, the media—driven primarily by ratings—reflect (and perhaps shape) public interests, priorities, and sentiment. With the advent of 24-hour news networks and the proliferation of Internet news sites, the supply of news outlets has grown dramatically. These news outlets often rely on “experts” to buttress their news stories. Research has demonstrated that the media will turn to “expert sources” to support their stories whether those sources are academic experts or not. Criminal justice officials, practitioners, and even laypeople serve as experts in the absence of academic researchers. Michael Welch and colleagues (Welch, Fenwick, & Roberts, 1998) reported that other sources to which the media might turn when criminologists are not available (e.g., practitioners and criminal justice officials) are typically more ideological in orientation. Practitioners and others tend to rely on anecdotal evidence (as opposed to research evidence) and tend to advocate for more “hard” approaches to the problem of crime. Criminologist Greg Barak (2007) argued that criminologists ought to engage more deliberately in “newsmaking criminology.” Barak argued that, by engaging the media, criminologists can help set and shape the crime policy agenda.

Despite the opportunities to engage in newsmaking criminology, relatively few criminologists engage the media with any frequency. There are a handful of criminologists (e.g., James Alan Fox and Larry Kobilinsky) who routinely make themselves available to local and national media outlets. Most others engage the media on more of an ad hoc basis, typically following an individual request from a local news agency.

There are clearly some downsides to engaging the media. The media rely heavily on overly simplistic explanations for complex phenomena. In an age of sound bites and easily digestible news, much of the story—and almost all of the nuances—gets lost. Most criminologists who have worked with the media have tales to tell of misquotes or selective use of material that distort meaning.

Organizational Participation

It is one thing for criminologists, acting as private citizens, to insert themselves into the policy process. It is quite another for formal associations, such as the American Society of Criminology (ASC) or the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS), to take formal organizational action in this arena. The main way these organizations have, to date, been active in the policy process is by a very limited role, such as supporting the work of the specialist scientific group Consortium of Social Science Associations. However, that is now changing. For about 5 years, the ACJS has had a public policy section that has a presence in Washington, D.C., and writes a newsletter about what is happening in the politics of crime. Also, the ASC recently contracted with a firm in DC to strengthen its voice on Capitol Hill.

Levels of organizational participation in the policy process, in order of “comfort” for the field, might include the following:

  • Advocating for the best possible quality of crime and justice statistics
  • Advocating for scientific peer review process for funding crime and justice research
  • Advocating for large crime research budgets
  • Commissioning the writing of white papers that summarize what is known about a topic
  • Supporting expert testimony before legislative bodies
  • Vetting experts to testify about specific legislation
  • Taking formal organizational positions in crime and justice matters

These are all strategies that are variously taken by one or another of other professional societies (the American Medical Association, American Bar Association, American Sociological Association), and so there is precedent for each of these kinds of participation by criminology. We now briefly review each type of participation.

Advocating for Quality Criminal Justice Data

Quite a bit of the work of criminologists draws on official data collected by various federal agencies. The Federal Bureau of Investigation collects and compiles crime data through the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and the National Incident Based Reporting System. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, alone and in collaboration with the Bureau of the Census, also collects criminal justice data, including, among many others, the National Crime Victimization Survey, the National Corrections Reporting Program, and the National Judicial Reporting Program. Similarly, a number of other federal agencies undertake substantial data collection efforts that address criminal justice issues. These data are used by criminologists as they conduct their research. As is always the case, the quality of the data will, in large part, dictate the quality of the research and the reliability of the findings. Criminologists therefore have a vested interest in ensuring the quality and integrity of these data. Just as important, these data are also sometimes used by the media and unscrupulous criminologists in ways that are seen as problematic by many in the field. Some of the ways in which UCR data have been used—for instance, to rank the nation’s safest or most dangerous cities—are particularly troubling because they rely on overly simplistic rankings of the raw data. Individually or collectively, criminologists might advocate for the collection of quality criminal justice data and for appropriate and responsible use of official data.

Advocating for Scientific Peer Review Processes

Just as some of the data used by criminologists as they conduct their research is generated by government agencies, some of the research in the area of crime and justice is funded by those very same agencies. The National Institute of Justice is one of the major funding sources for academic criminological research. The National Institutes of Health; its subsidiary, the National Institute on Drug Abuse; the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; and the National Science Foundation also fund research in the areas of criminology and criminal justice. Although the amount of funding set aside for research might vary across presidential administrations, the need for quality controls in the selection of projects identified for funding should not. To that end, academic criminologists seeking to influence public policy sometimes actively involve themselves in the funding selection processes by advocating for peer review processes and, in some instances, serving as peer reviewers.

Advocating for Research Budgets

Criminologists and criminological organizations have at times advocated on behalf of agencies and bureaus involved in the data collection and research funding enterprises. When local, state, and federal budgets are tight (or in crisis), the tendency has been to reduce or eliminate research funding. Some people would argue this strategy is shortsighted because criminological research has the capacity to address fundamental questions of public policy. The Consortium of Social Science Associations serves as a national umbrella organization that promotes social science research. Criminology is quite well represented in that lobbying group.

Commissioning White Papers

Professional criminological organizations might also engage in the commissioning of white papers that summarize what we collectively know about an issue based on the accumulated evidence. This is particularly important because one of the major barriers to effective participation in the policy-making process has been the issue of accessibility. Research findings in the field of criminology typically appear in academic journals and books written for academic audiences. These journals and books are frequently loaded with relatively advanced statistical methods, complicated descriptions of the findings, and no small amount of academic jargon. In other words, the findings are not particularly accessible to a general audience or to policymakers. Moreover, the findings often represent a small piece of a much larger puzzle. Findings from one study typically build on findings from previously published work. Experts in the field may be familiar with the accumulated body of evidence, whereas those in a general audience would typically not be. White papers can draw on and more concisely summarize the collection of research findings in a particular area.

An annual publication, Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, published by the University of Chicago Press and edited by Michael Tonry, does this for research findings across a number of areas. The National Academy of Sciences also has commissioned works that synthesize and summarize the state of knowledge within a particular area (perhaps most notably, deterrence and gun control). White papers commissioned by professional associations could be drafted in response to pressing issues of public policy. These reports could adeptly synthesize what criminology as a field has to offer in the form of contributions to our understanding of the issue. The white papers fall short of offering official positions and instead provide information relevant to and necessary for making informed decisions around policy issues.

The ASC has experimented with the white-paper process, but not very successfully. After two white papers were written on incarceration policy, the ASC’s executive board decided to end the process because it was deemed not to fit very well with the way the organization works. White papers were seen as too politically controversial to be sustainable by the organization, and no easy process for vetting the papers throughout the whole organization was available.

Supporting Expert Testimony before Legislative Bodies

Another way professional organizations could become more directly involved in the policy arena would be through supporting expert testimony before legislative bodies. Most bills that are introduced in legislatures are subject to some debate before they come to a vote. All sorts of legislation related to crime and justice policy makes its way through this process without any input from criminologists or criminal justice experts. Professional organizations might provide funding or simply encourage their memberships to more actively involve themselves in the legislative process.

Vetting Experts to Testify about Specific Legislation

Professional organizations—and in particular their executive boards—might vet experts to testify about specific legislation. For example, if legislation proposing stricter limits on access to guns were up for discussion, professional organizations could solicit the participation of known experts in the field, perhaps carefully selecting experts representing a variety of viewpoints. The criminological organization could establish a stable of people who have been identified as having unassailable expertise in given areas and then promote their testimony on legislative matters as they arise.

Taking Formal Organizational Positions

Although some professional organizations (e.g., the American Bar Association) quite routinely announce official organizational positions on issues of importance to their field, the two largest professional criminological associations—the ASC and the ACJS—have been more reluctant to take formal (e.g., official) positions on matters of criminal justice policy. To date, the ASC has officially taken official policy positions on just two issues: (1) the death penalty and (2) the irresponsible use of crime data. In 1989, the ASC issued its first official policy position proclaiming opposition to the death penalty:

Be it resolved that because social science research has demonstrated the death penalty to be racist in application and social science research has found no consistent evidence of crime deterrence through execution, The American Society of Criminology publicly condemns this form of punishment, and urges its members to use their professional skills in legislatures and courts to seek a speedy abolition of this form of punishment. (American Society of Criminology, n.d.)

Although the ASC’s official position on the death penalty reflects the wider membership’s general opposition to capital punishment, not all members support that view; neither would all members agree with the official position taken. In part because of concern about announcing official positions in a field in which there are notable differences of opinion, the ASC’s death penalty position stood as the sole policy position for nearly 20 years until, in 2007, the ASC board voted to announce a second official policy position, regarding the irresponsible use of crime data. Amid growing concern that official crime data were being misused and misrepresented (particularly in the media), in November 2007, the executive board of the ASC took an official policy position with regard to the use of UCR data:

Be it resolved, that the Executive Board of the American Society of Criminology opposes the use of Uniform Crime Reports data to rank American cities as “dangerous” or “safe” without proper consideration of the limitations of these data. Such rankings are invalid, damaging, and irresponsible. They fail to account for the many conditions affecting crime rates, the mis-measurement of crime, large community differences in crime within cities, and the factors affecting individuals’ crime risk. City crime rankings make no one safer, but they can harm the cities they tarnish and divert attention from the individual and community characteristics that elevate crime in all cities. The Executive Board of the American Society of Criminology urges media outlets to subject city crime rankings to scientifically sound evaluation and will make crime experts available to assist in this vital public responsibility. (American Society of Criminology, n.d.)

In addition to announcing official policy positions of the organization, the ASC has also convened a National Policy Committee. As mentioned previously, earlier iterations of the ASC’s National Policy Committee have issued two policy papers (i.e., white papers). Each of these white papers makes clear through a disclaimer that the papers express the views of their authors and do not represent official policy positions of the organization (although clearly the policy paper on the death penalty supports the ASC’s previously announced official position on the death penalty).


The purpose of this chapter was to review the position of criminology and criminal justice relative to the world of public policy. Despite an obvious relevance, the field of criminology has historically exhibited a reluctance to engage in questions of public policy in any systematic or concerted manner. Although there are some notable individual exceptions, as a group criminologists have been reticent to participate in the process. Criminological associations have expressed even more reservations regarding such participation.

We should be clear that the state of criminology as a field related to public policy is changing. Where it is headed we cannot say, but there is almost a certainty that the extremely limited participation of the field that has characterized its history is ending. Debates today are less about whether to participate and more about how best to participate in the policy arena.