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The rising crime rates narrative and the criminal justice reform conversation

The rising crime rates narrative and the criminal justice reform conversation

This is the first in a series of blog entries from Research Operations Director Daniel Stageman, tying current research, upcoming events, and public scholarship from John Jay College faculty and staff to the contemporary conversation around criminal justice reform.

Blog entry by: Daniel Stageman, 10/26/2015

On October 8th, Assistant Professor of Law and Police Science Peter Moskos tweeted this:

Cop in the Hood: Believe the hype: Murder is going up http://t.co/wfrZAFFDGt

— Peter Moskos (@PeterMoskos) October 8, 2015

Professor Moskos, a former Baltimore city cop, is in good company among law enforcement scholars in this opinion. Here’s NYU’s Mark A.R. Kleiman, architect of the renowned Project Hope program, in an exchange with John Jay Research and Evaluation Center Director Jeff Butts:

@JohnJayREC @JohnJayResearch Wish this were right. It’s not. This year breaks a 20-year downtrend in homicide. Bad news. Let’s face it.

— Mark A.R. Kleiman (@MarkARKleiman) September 9, 2015

When scholars such as Kleiman and Moskos put forward these opinions about rising homicide rates, they do so as a wake-up call to fellow researchers: build a research agenda around this issue before it’s too late.

When will it be too late? To what extent is the current US criminal justice reform consensus dependent upon the past 20 years of plummeting crime rates? Even the steeliest of reform advocates likely took notice at the recent rhetoricof New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, elected in no small part on the strength of his criminal justice reform agenda, when discussing bail reform: “Some people are irredeemable. I’m a progressive person, I’m a humanitarian, but I can also tell you some people are irredeemable and unless they are treated very, very differently they pose a danger to our society.” De Blasio made these remarks in the context of the senseless and brutal East Harlem murder of police officer Randolph Holder, but this context if anything reinforces fears about the fragility of criminal justice reform momentum: if a single horrific incident holds the potential to stall – or even reverse – years of carefully constructed,evidence-based bail reform efforts, then what risks are posed by a sustained, statistically significant, and broadly national uptick in homicide and other violent crime rates?

This is the essential question that renders academic argument about the reality, severity, or sustained presence of a possible rise in violent crime rates effectively moot: if policy-makers, practitioners, and especially the media have seized on this narrative, it is a reality that supporters of the current criminal justice reform consensus must take into account.

As an institution at the forefront of the contemporary criminal justice reform conversation, John Jay College continues to set an ambitious agenda for addressing the potential effects that a rise in the nation’s violent crime rates, along with a myriad of other factors, might have on a wide range of policy initiatives. Today and tomorrow (October 26 and 27), the College’s Prisoner Reentry Institute hosts a Laura and John Arnold Foundation-fundedRoundtable to Develop a National Pretrial Research Agenda (while the event is invitation-only, please follow our Twitter feed, and the PRI’s, where portions of the proceedings will be live-Tweeted).

Next week, the College will host Washington Post columnist Radley Balko for a Book Talk on his recent book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. Expect a frank and intense discussion of law enforcement culture and practices in the context of increased attention on – and highly publicized protests against – police killings of civilians, as well as an exploration of the potential relationship between this new context and the aforementioned rise in homicides. This will also be the subject of our next blog entry in this series, “Choosing sides: Militarization, murder, and mixed-metaphor in the ‘War on Crime.’”

Balko’s visit to John Jay comes as part of the College’s year-long initiative Bridging the Divide: Re-imagining Police-Community Relations, a series of events that will continue into the Spring Semester. Also in the New Year, the College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater will be the proud host of the second annual American Justice Summit. Following the success of the inaugural summit in 2014 (as described in our well-received report on the subject), this event will bring together the leaders of the criminal justice reform movement – from the fields of policy, advocacy, media, academia, and practice alike – for a series of public conversations assessing the movement’s progress, goals, and issues (like the potential uptick in violent crime rates) with the potential to change its course.

Finally, on April 22nd, 2016, John Jay will host the National Association for the Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) for its second annual Academic Symposium. Our third blog entry in the current series will address the progress of reforms related to law enforcement oversight and accountability, such as the recent establishment of the NYPD’s Office of the Inspector General (currently Philip K. Eure, who we are proud to say will serve as NACOLE’s Co-Chair for the Symposium) or New York State Executive Order 147, establishing a special prosecutor to investigate lethal force incidents. How dependent are these reforms on the specifics of the current political climate and the crime decline? How robust will they be in the face of a sustained uptick in violent crime rates? What is the role of oversight in supporting the basic crime control function of law enforcement agencies?

As an institution, John Jay College has heard the wake-up call on the possible rise in violent crime rates. This is not to say we accept it as a statistically significant trend, or make any predictions about its potential to continue; rather, we recognize that building and assessing an evidence base is only part of the work of moving a criminal justice reform agenda forward. Engagement in the reform conversation means recognizing that policy makers, practitioners, the media and the general public interpret and use data in different ways than researchers and scholars do. Through our public scholarship, we acknowledge that all of these constituents have a stake in criminal justice reform; the more we speak to them directly – and listen to their responses – the greater the potential role of evidence-based research in shaping the dialogue.

Please check back later in the week for new entries in this series. Thanks for reading.

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