By Bruce Western
The U.S. criminal justice system is now at the center of several overlapping conversations about race, the police, and mass incarceration. Public agencies tasked with responding to crime have become targets of social activism and demands for accountability.
This is a challenging debate for policy researchers. Usually, in the face of bad public policy, we try to offer research-based improvements. The U.S. government spends $80 billion each year on incarceration, but research shows the crime-reducing effect of incarceration is at best unclear. So we suggest policies that might reduce incarceration: sentencing reform, diversion programs, and so on.
But improving policy in the future does nothing to redress the bad policies of the past and years of imprisonment racked up at taxpayer expense. And it does nothing to help the poor communities of color from which most of the penal population is drawn.
There’s a question of justice that can’t be addressed by policy improvements alone. And often justice is not demanded individually but demanded by whole groups, by people in poor neighborhoods, by young men of color, and yes, even by young men involved in crime.
In this blog, we’ll talk a lot about research, and we’ll try to connect research to public conversations. The justice question will be central here, a problem perhaps more urgent than policy improvement.