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A Researcher’s Lament: Fighting for What Works

Consider this: (1) a physician who consults the most recent edition of a medical journal for “best practices” in surgery and, (2) an attorney who consults the legislative minutes from a recent session for changes in criminal law. What do these two individuals have in common? Both the physician and the attorney seek to amend their occupational behavior through data-driven and evidence-based practices. Professions that explore how to economize and streamline their work efforts are most effective at delivering a product or service because they acknowledge the fluidity of their practice and see wisdom in change. The evolution of science, living on the edge of discovery, means looking for answers even when you don’t need them. No one would be expected to seek the counsel of an uninformed doctor no more than they would hire the lawyer who carries outdated knowledge of the law. This is accepted dogma in most cases. But it is also true that in many domains of work, the experienced layperson is disconnected from the labors of methodical evaluation. This is nowhere truer than in criminal justice. On one end is the figures the public is most intimate with, like law enforcement and correctional officers, judges, and district attorneys. These groups work to maintain order, practice the law, and reprimand those who violate that law. They build on in-field experience; experience that can only be built through apprenticeship-type relationships and the cultivation of in-depth site knowledge. On the other end of the criminal justice spectrum are those in academic, research-based fields, where the importance for theoretical axioms underpins conclusions and drives the direction of implications from such research. Clinicians may collect data and determine – based on an application of theory – the relationship between two things.

This dynamic can be found in nearly every area of expertise: one that is applied and one that is more theoretical. The two are designed to merge and offer one another perspective and, hopefully, create principles for operating most effectively, delivering the most desired outcomes, and maximizing impact. Unlike medicine and law, however, the applied and theoretical in criminal justice have traditionally been divorced. These two ends occupy different areas of the conversation and without fail, have a long history of conflict. The bridge to evidence-based policy making rests on the collaboration between both practitioner and academic. It also requires the ability to communicate and share information in useful and easy-to-digest formats[1]. This is currently one of two major obstructions blocking the widespread adoption of evidence-based methods in policy implementation. The other is a bit stark and less easily manipulated. How and when research has an influence on policy is dependent on prevailing political agendas and what is popular in the public forum, of which may not necessarily be tied to the nature of presented evidence[2]. Researchers and policy makers speak a different language, this is true, and are undoubtedly responsive to difference audiences with consequences when they fail. However, it is these differing motives which have left scholars bemoaning the lack of evaluation as scholarship is thrown at the wayside. Both parties in this exchange are responsible for a fusion that criminal justice so desperately needs.


The Martinson Report (1974) famously proclaimed that rehabilitative efforts of criminal offenders had failed. The “nothing works” doctrine became religion and ushered in a new approach to policy making. A shrewd observer can imagine the outcome of this doctrine and it certainly colored the direction of criminal justice in the decades that followed. What came after the Martinson report – whether the result of its dissemination of not[3] – was a systematic dismantling of remaining state-supported rehabilitation efforts and the precipitous growth of brick and mortar correctional facilities. Laws were concurrently changed, resting on the notion that incapacitation (e.g. putting all criminals behind bars) was the key to society’s woes. The run on a massive correctional administrative state sped up and has continued to grow since then. The wisdom to support these trends has not been drawn from evidence-based policy but from what appears to be politically popular and perpetuates a false sense of order. The wholesale abandonment of scholarship-oriented evaluative methods and the lack of collaboration between researchers and practitioners has left the American criminal justice system decayed, bloated, and less effective. Breaking through this sorrowful diatribe, there is reason for cautious optimism. Evidence-based policy has more recently come into vogue and that trend has in effect “spilled over” into the administration of justice. Couched in the belief that evaluation is the currency needed to identify interventions that work, research has the potential to impact practice and policy. A movement pushing to create policy “that works” was driven by the objective methodological categorization of programming, an effort that emerged from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Crime and Sherman and colleagues (1997) extensive review of programming based on scientific rigor which was eventually presented to Congress[4].

All of this begs the question: what does effective programming and by extension – effective policy – in criminal justice look like? The primary goals in the administration of justice include: (1) eliminating sources of crime and lowering individual propensity for criminal behavior; (2) reducing repeat offending (e.g. recidivism); and (3) reducing victimization. Since the era of research-oriented criminal justice policy efforts was birthed, we have an idea of what such practices might look like in action; evidence-based policing serves as such an example. Centered around concepts on operational reform, “evidence-based policing” refers to the use of scholarship in law enforcement as a means of re-orienting the traditional policing model (the use of random patrols, unfocused investigation)[5]. It also rests on the idea that a practical application of the law can be enhanced by a better understanding of what has been shown to work under investigative conditions. Evaluation is seen as precedent that can help direct behavior and reinforce existing technique. Although in a nascent form, some police departments have started to adopt an approach to policing strategy that is more responsive to ever-changing scholarship. In Lowell, Massachusetts – a department plagued by increasing crime rates[6] – the use of hot spot patrolling significantly reduced calls for service and, through the adoption of other strategies including the targeting of open-air drug markets and prostitution and foot and bike patrols – was able to simultaneously eliminate major forms of displacement. The observant would suggest that Lowell is a prime example of how research and evaluation can inform organizational direction and individual choice-making.

Other examples of evidence-based criminal justice policy – specifically in the pre-trial and sentencing phases – are radically remaking the way individual cases are approached. Using an evidence-based strategy has afforded court rooms the flexibility to adjudicate on the conditions of the case and within context, allowing for a more successful delivery of services and reasonable application of sanctions. The Vera Justice Institute – an organization whose mission centers on remediating the sources and effects of mass incarceration – developed a tool in 2012 with support from the City of New Orleans which aims to encourage more informed judicial decision-making. The intended effect with the “pre-trial” assessment was and is to reduce the number of people being held in jail and lack the resources needed to make bail. By screening out non-violent and low-risk offenders, Vera is not only mitigating the impact of incarceration but saving public tax dollars in the process[7]. This project, an exciting venture for New Orleans, serves as a model for other municipalities looking to cultivate a culture of innovation and evidence-based policy initiatives. Much like the rest of Louisiana, New Orleans has become an incubator for criminal justice reform in the attempt to recover after decades of punitive correctional policy and escape the scars of urban policing that left the state with the highest concentration of incarcerated people nation-wide.


Despite all this, my outlook on evidence-based policy making in criminal justice remains cynical at best. I look at shifts in Federal operations as a proxy for how difficult it has become to fight through campaigns of misinformation and offer quality evidence to both hungry policy makers and the wider public. I lament this challenge and the current state-of-affairs but also acknowledge that things have improved substantially. What criminal justice scholarship needs is policy makers willing to take on a skeptical public and experiment with programming that has been proven effective. I contend and remain confident that this is one area of our social ecology that people feel united towards. The public overwhelmingly approves of criminal justice reform measures that decriminalize and de-institutionalize communities. The public also largely supports rehabilitation and the dismantling of expensive houses of incarceration. I argue – like others working towards eliminating the long-term effects of mass incarceration – that evidence-based policy making favors reform efforts and that the public largely supports this movement. The goal is to get policy makers to see the value of reform. It also behooves researchers, evaluators, and others in the scholarly community to find a common language, rapport build, and make ground in public forums. These public forums are the way to encourage lawmakers to change course. We are at a crossroads where justice reform is so desperately needed, both socially and financially. It remains the responsibility of all parties to find criminal justice solutions while avoiding the tone-deaf scripture of past precedent. Evidence-based policy making is the way to do this.

[1] Mouradian, V. E., Mechanic, M. B., & Williams, L. M. (2001). Recommendations for establishing and maintaining successful researcher-practitioner collaborations. Wellesley, MA: National Violence Against Women Research Center, Wellesley College.

[2] Weiss, C. H., Murphy-Graham, E., Petrosino, A., & Gandhi, A. G. (2008). The fairy godmother—and her warts: Making the dream of evidence-based policy come true. American Journal of Evaluation, 29(1), 29-47.

[3] I’d say yes, the Martinson Report DID have an impact on not only policy direction but the interpretation of law (SEE Mistretta v. US)

[4] Sherman, L. W., Gottfredson, D. C., MacKenzie, D. L., Eck, J., Reuter, P., & Bushway, S. (1997). Preventing crime: What works, what doesn't, what's promising: A report to the United States Congress. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

[5] Lum, C., & Koper, C. S. (2014). Evidence-based policing. In Encyclopedia of criminology and criminal justice (pp. 1426-1437). Springer, New York, NY.

[6]Braga, A. A., & Bond, B. J. (2008). Policing crime and disorder hot spots: A randomized controlled trial. Criminology, 46(3), 577-607.

[7] See more about Vera here:

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