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How Criminal Justice Research Can Be The Basis For Serious Reforms

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A wide gap remains between criminal justice research and justice-system policymaking, but there are some signs of progress, says Michael Jacobson of the Institute for State and Local Governance at the City University of New York (CUNY).

Compared with other areas of public policy such as repairing infrastructure failures, criminal justice is particularly susceptible to "toxic" and "racist" politics, says Jacobson, a former president of the Vera Institute of Justice and New York City Correction Commissioner. He addressed a new speaker series sponsored by the Justice Lab at Columbia University.

"One high-profile failure" in the justice system can influence policy makers to institute "get tough" policies that are not supported by research, Jacobson says.

He cited the example of Polly Klaas, the 12-year-old California girl who was kidnapped from a slumber party in 1993 and murdered by a man with a long criminal record. The case helped lead to an era of "three strikes" punishment laws in many states.

"Crime is an exceedingly emotional issue ... that can be exploited" by politicians, Jacobson says.

The phenomenon has been tough to stop over many decades. In the 1980s, the U.S. started what has become several decades of mass incarceration. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported this week that prison and jail populations in the nation rose last year, although they have declined since a 2007 peak in state prison totals.

As one example of a constructive role for research in supporting criminal justice reform, Jacobson discussed

the Safety and Justice Challenge sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation.

The project has funded jail reforms in 57 jurisdictions around the nation since 2016. In its first three years, the jail population was cut by 18 percent in participating counties and cities.

Reforms differ from place to place but they have included expanding legal representation of defendants at bail hearings and periodic detention review hearings to assess whether particular suspects should remain in custody pending resolution of their cases.

It's not just an issue of court and jail policies. Jacobson urges looking at police and prosecutor practices to reduce the length of time that defendants are jailed.

Supporters of the challenge argue that releasing more defendants on bail does not lead to major crime increases, as critics charge. A report issued by the project said that only 2-3% of people released pretrial were rebooked into jail with a violent crime charge.

The success of the Safety and Justice Challenge so far suggests that "there is hope" for criminal justice reform supported by research, Jacobson says, but the lengthy process of change shows that "it's a slog."


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