originally published August 6, 2009
Twice within a month the Baltimore Sun told its readers that the juvenile justice system didn’t work for dangerous juveniles. (July 12, “A Broken System; almost the same editorial August 2, “Young and Dangerous.”)
It was just two years ago that the Sun was incensed over another juvenile crime, the murder of a 67-year-old woman taking her daily walk. (“Two Wrongs,” 5/9/07.) But this time the Sun’s ire was turned against the presiding judge for failing to let the juvenile justice system handle the teenage shooter, sentencing him instead to 10 years in prison as an adult.
So which is it? The juvenile justice system can or can’t handle juveniles who shoot people?
The Sun doesn’t know. The politicians don’t know. And the public doesn’t know. The truth is, when it comes to criminal justice, we largely fly blind, leaping to conclusions based on gut feelings, theories, perceptions, and what we simply want to believe.
On August 2nd the New York Times published its own piece on crime entitled “The Real Murder Mystery? It’s the Low Crime Rate.” The central premise was that crime rates and criminal behavior are often unpredictable, confounding both those who would lock ‘em up and those who think that more services will solve the crime problem.
Yet politicians continue to throw money at new ideas, or old ideas dressed up as new ones, or whatever idea appeals to our need to do something about the most recent senseless, outrageous crime. As the New York Times put it, political agendas are “fueled less by crime than by another variable that is famously unfazed by real-world predictors: public perception.”
The first thing we need for any criminal justice system to work is knowledge. Knowledge based on facts, on research, on scientific study. This we sorely lack. The government will hastily spend money, usually with public (and press) acquiescence, on the latest criminal justice idea that sounds good. Here are some examples from my own first-hand experience over the last decade.
Early Disposition Court. Young, brash, newly elected Mayor Martin O’Malley was going to single-handedly solve the court overcrowding problem, save millions of dollars, and focus resources on violent criminals by creating a court at which all minor cases would be resolved at the first stop. His idea lacked scientific and practical merit. But state politicians jumped on the bandwagon, appropriated money, and never looked back as taxpayer money flushed down the toilet.
Courtroom in the Jail. The Division of Pretrial Detention and Services published a report promising the end of jail overcrowding and the savings of many millions of dollars if the state would build a courtroom in the Central Booking Facility in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, the report was made up nearly out of whole cloth. Filled with unsupported assumptions disguised as fact, the report alarmed not only me but the Chief of the District Court at the time, Martha F. Rasin.
But as former state senator Gloria G. Lawlah told the press, Rasin just didn’t “understand the political reality.” The court was built at taxpayer expense and no one ever tried to determine whether it saved the many millions promised. (It didn’t save a dime.)
The War Room. Here was a program with the good intention of focusing criminal justice resources on repeat violent offenders. But it, like any program, needed study to determine its effectiveness. Instead, Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy squashes most of the statistics for political reasons. And year after year the Maryland General Assembly continues to appropriate money for the War Room, having no idea whether or not the funds are well-spent.
I have no doubt that my experience is shared by others within the criminal justice system and continues to repeat itself. Programs and initiatives, each hailed as a solution to some problem or other, attract city, state or federal funding. And then we never hear anything about them again. Were they really worth trying? Did they work? We don’t get the answers. Many times, the questions aren’t even asked. To the extent we get any information, it comes from agencies motivated to overhype the good news and suppress the bad. And the murders and shootings go on.
As long as politicians, with the short view and their own careers in mind, run the criminal justice system, we can’t expect to turn much around in Baltimore. Politicians will always have a new solution that they will promote and fund, which will inevitably be supplanted by political successors promising their own solutions. And the wheel spins round and round.
Here’s what we need: a Baltimore Research Center for Criminal Justice. A scientifically based center tasked with these main responsibilities:
1. Study new initiatives that city police and prosecutors are trying out or getting funding for. Are the programs working? Are they meeting their goals? What are these programs teaching us?
2. Analyze proposed initiatives for theoretical and practical soundness. Establish the means for testing their effectiveness.
3. Collect and analyze studies from other cities with a view to understanding what we can learn from them, both good and bad.
This Research Center must make its findings available to everyone: government, press, public. It can’t be ideological, partisan, or in the business of making policy, nor would it take over the police function of reporting crime statistics. Its job would be to objectively evaluate policy proposals and criminal justice initiatives, such as programs that focus on violent offenders, gun-toting juveniles, addicts, prostitutes, alternative sentencing, and so forth.
It should contain an academic component—a criminologist whose allegiance is to intellectual truth and academic reputation, rather than to politician and party. Someone with a neutral perspective and scientific training.
And it needs a practical component, such as a former prosecutor or police officer who knows where the information is kept or buried and how to decipher it. I have seen criminologists undermined by bad data from agencies that could have been spotted by someone from the trenches. The practical component would also bring a useful local perspective to proposals that arise from other jurisdictions.
The Research Center would likely have to confine itself to Baltimore, as state agencies would probably refuse to share data. But that’s okay—I believe reform must generate from within Baltimore anyway, not from the state or federal government. Beginning locally will allow for greater flexibility and imagination.
Just think—before we spend money, we might have a valid reason to think a program might succeed besides “it sounds good.” When we fund the program, we would study whether it actually works and it should be expanded, adjusted, or abandoned.
And with a neutral Research Center, maybe we can begin to depoliticize our reaction to crime and start approaching it smartly.
Of course, to achieve such a vision, some politician would have to create the center and then cede control. It should be kept outside the mayor’s office, the prosecutor’s office, and the police department, while requiring those agencies to share data.
And I am not so naïve as to think that a Research Center would be totally and forever immune from politics. But it might gain the kind of reputation for impartial study that the Congressional Budget Office once enjoyed.
We must at least try. Perhaps a politician who has reached her highest aspiration, secure in her constituency, interested in establishing a legacy that she could claim with pride, would be willing to establish it.
Mayor Dixon, what do you think?