Calls to “reimagine” everything from policing to incarceration have dominated criminal-justice policy circles in recent years, but truly innovative research has been stifled. The federal government should devote more resources to collecting data on criminal incidents and offenders, police, courts, and other facets of public safety.
To start, policymakers should work to improve the consistency and uniformity of data that cities provide. All jurisdictions—encompassing roughly 18,000 law-enforcement agencies—should report their data to the FBI-run National Incident-Based Reporting System. NIBRS, which became the sole collections system in 2021, improves on past systems by collecting not just broad incident numbers but also such details as date, time, and location, whether offenses were carried out or merely attempted, the relationships between victims and offenders, the presence of drugs, whether the offender was under the influence, gang involvement, and whether a computer was used in the commission of the crime. All told, NIBRS reports on 52 discrete offenses.
Though the FBI has distributed $120 million since 2015 to help departments adopt this system, in 2021, about 7,000 police agencies, representing approximately 35 percent of the U.S. population, still did not provide any data. It’s unlikely that the 2022 numbers will be more robust. With more than a third of the country’s crime reporting missing, analysts struggle to draw solid conclusions. Federal authorities should therefore offer carrots and wield sticks to ensure that jurisdictions submit NIBRS data.
Further, Washington should establish a “sentinel cities” program—an idea proposed by crime-data analyst Jeff Asher. Such a program would include about 100 cities, offering them targeted funding to publish statistics on selected offenses, at frequent, synchronized intervals, on an open portal and using a standard data format. Collecting all this baseline information will enable authorities to view and analyze trends.
That’s just a start. Standalone, probing research projects deserve more funding, too. The main agency here would be the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice, but NIJ’s recent funding levels are low both historically and relative to agencies that investigate areas other than crime, such as the National Institutes of Health. The national agency that oversees NIJ, the Office of Justice Programs, saw its funding slashed between 2011 and 2012 from over $200 million to roughly $100 million. This year, funding is only about $75 million. Yet answering the most pressing and nuanced criminal-justice questions—such as, say, how to reduce tensions between police and inner-city black communities—often demands multicity research, involving fieldwork, surveys, and multiyear time frames.
Projects that receive funding and the professionals responsible for undertaking this work should possess a genuine understanding of crime realities—but with funding reduced and good scholarship scarce, evidence gets elbowed aside by ideology. The current director of NIJ lists the following as her second priority: “Elevating studies that apply a racial equity lens.” Such a focus permits only those research questions—and answers—that allege racism as the key driver of problems.
Criminal-justice research must remain above the partisan fray. Without investment in the necessary research, any reimagining of law enforcement will look more like daydreaming.