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Is It Past Time For A 'Serious Upgrade' Of Criminal Justice?

Violent crime is a pressing national concern. The surge in homicide and associated violence in the past three years has made voters skittish and prompted aggressive partisan finger-pointing. This increase has not prompted significant investment in our criminal justice system. Ironically the increase in violent crime is itself a product of fiscal neglect of that same system over the past decade, argues Charles Fain Lehman for the Manhattan Institute.

The criminal justice system needs an upgrade. Police staffing has been dropping since the Great Recession; prisons and jails are increasingly violent; court backlogs keep growing; essential crime data are not collected; and essential criminology research is not conducted, Lehman says.

These shortcomings contribute not only to the recent increase in violence but to long-term violence and crime problems, problems that cost tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars each year.

Lehman maintains that "both the political left and right have subsumed criminal justice issues into the larger culture war, fighting over the worst excesses of the police or the horrors of criminal victimization."

He contends that policymakers should look to past examples of lawmakers' using the power of the purse to y improve the criminal justice system’s capacity to control crime.

The Manhattan Institute report calls for an ambitious, $12-billion, five-year plan to bring the criminal justice system up to date. It includes:

--Hiring 80,000 police officers.

--Dramatically expanding funding of public safety research, including creating an Advanced Research Projects Administration for public safety.

--Rehabilitating failing prisons and jails with a carrot-and-stick approach.

--Creating national standards for criminal case processing.

--Upgrading data infrastructure, including by creating a national “sentinel cities” program.

Lehman contends that these proposals would cost a drop in the federal spending bucket, but would likely have a dramatic and sustained impact on reducing the amount and cost of crime..

There are many, competing explanations for why certain kinds of crime increased in 2020, and why they have remained elevated. One possibility is that the increase was driven by a sudden, sharp reduction in the ability of the criminal justice system to control the level of crime.

Courts closed, police retreated, offenders were diverted from jails and prisons, all contributing to reduce the level of control exercised over would-be criminals.

As these institutions ground to a halt, the number of criminal offenders on the street rose. Jails reduced their intake, with overall jail population falling 18% in March of 2020 and another 11% by April—declines from which jails have still not fully rebounded.

Lehman says there is an obvious connection between this growth in crime and the sudden and sustained reduction in the capacity of the criminal justice system and the resources at its disposal.

On the research issue, he says the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) spends about $76 million in research funds out of an operating budget of $232 million (as of 2018). This funding level is paltry in both historical context and relative to other government agencies.

In Lehman's view, "the key components of the criminal justice system—the police, prisons, jails, courts, data-collection apparatus, and research and development—are operating well below optimal capacity. This problem predates the 2020 violence wave, which has only made the dysfunction more apparent."

His conclusion: The U.S. should acknowledge that the criminal justice system has been underproviding safety for years and that the "under-provision is driven largely by the inadequacies in our out-of-date criminal justice system; and that we can commit to making a serious upgrade."


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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