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What Criminologists Don’t Say, and Why

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What Criminologists Don’t Say, and Why

Monopolized by the Left, academic research on crime gets almost everything wrong. Summer 2017
Public safety

The history of academic criminology is one of grand pronouncements that don’t often prove out in the real world. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, criminologists demanded that public policy attack the “root causes” of crime, such as poverty and racism. Without solving these problems, they argued, we could not expect to fight crime effectively. On this thinking, billions of taxpayer dollars poured into ambitious social programs—yet crime went up, not down. In the 1970s and 1980s and into the 1990s, as crime rates continued to spike, criminologists proceeded to tell us that the police could do little to cut crime, and that locking up the felons, drug dealers, and gang leaders who committed much of the nation’s criminal violence wouldn’t work, either.

These views were shown to be false, too, but they were held so pervasively across the profession that, when political scientist James Q. Wilson called for selective incapacitation of violent repeat offenders, he found himself ostracized by his peers, who resorted to ad hominem attacks on his character and motivations. Wilson’s work was ignored by awards committees, and criminological reviews of his books, especially Thinking About Crime and Crime and Human Nature, were almost universally negative. In the real-world policy arena, however, Wilson attained significant influence: the Broken Windows theory of policing and public order, which Wilson developed with criminologist George Kelling, became a key part of the proactive policing strategies that would be largely responsible for the great crime decline starting in the mid-1990s.

In short, while academic criminology has had much to say about crime, most of it has been wrong. How can an academic discipline be so wrongheaded? And should we listen to criminologists today when, say, they call for prisons to be emptied, cops to act as glorified playground attendants, and criminal sentences to be dramatically reduced, if not eliminated? Answers to the first question are readily available—and suggest the answer to the second.

Academic criminologists are mainly sociologists, trained in statistics and armed with theories. Though most don’t study crime or violence directly, they have produced useful studies about offenders and the criminal-justice system. Through their work, we know, for example, that criminal behavior is strongly intergenerational, that relatively few people account for the majority of all crimes, and that some offenders desist from crime over time but many others simply change the types of crimes they commit. We also have learned that most offenders are generalists—that is, they commit a diverse assortment of crimes—and that steps can be taken to reduce criminal events by making them more difficult to carry out. Most criminals, it turns out, are lazy.

In other ways, though, criminologists’ lack of direct contact with subjects, situations, and neighborhoods—their propensity to abstraction—invites misunderstandings about the reality of crime. Most academics have never met with women who have been raped or children who have been molested, or seen the carnage wrought by a bullet that passed through a human skull, or spent a lot of time with police on the street. The gulf between numbers on a spreadsheet and the harsh realities of the world sometimes fosters a romanticized view of criminals as victims, making it easier for criminologists to overlook the damage that lawbreakers cause—and to advocate for more lenient policies and treatment.

Evidence of the liberal tilt in criminology is widespread. Surveys show a 30:1 ratio of liberals to conservatives within the field, a spread comparable with that in other social sciences. The largest group of criminologists self-identify as radical or “critical.” These designations include many leftist intellectual orientations, from radical feminism to Marxism to postmodernism. Themes of injustice, oppression, disparity, marginalization, economic and social justice, racial discrimination, and state-sanctioned violence dominate criminological teaching and scholarship, as represented in books with titles like Search and Destroy: African American Males in the Criminal Justice System, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse.

A quick perusal of Presidential Awards for Distinguished Contributions to Justice, bestowed by the American Society of Criminology (ASC), shows that the winners were primarily rewarded for their left-wing advocacy. They included a judge in Massachusetts who advocated abolishing the state’s death penalty, an FBI agent who successfully sued the organization for ethnic discrimination, and a former director of juvenile corrections in Massachusetts who closed the state’s juvenile reformatories and wrote a book alleging that the system hunted down black men for sport. The society also honored Zaki Baruti, a radical black activist in St. Louis known for his hatred of police and support for leftist causes.

Recently, the ASC’s policy committee sent a mass e-mail to members, asking for help in countering a Wall Street Journal editorial written by Heather Mac Donald, a longtime City Journal contributing editor and a writer known for eviscerating liberal claims about the police and the justice system. Mac Donald argued that because of increased scrutiny and charges of racism, police had rolled back their efforts to deter crime, at least in minority communities, resulting in rising violence in many cities across the country. She called this the “Ferguson Effect,” after the town in Missouri where the (justified) police shooting of Michael Brown, a young black man, in 2014 ignited riots and gave rise to a new anti-law-enforcement push from advocates, the press, and Democratic politicians. The existence and extent of the Ferguson Effect is an empirical question that can be debated. But it is telling that the ASC had never shown any interest in rebutting the hundreds of editorials that repeated factually baseless claims about police shootings or the racism supposedly embedded in the criminal-justice system. Only Mac Donald’s work was singled out—as was Wilson’s, years earlier.

Walter Miller, one of the few mid-twentieth-century criminologists whose work was unapologetically conservative, suggested that ideology can turn “plausibility into ironclad certainty . . . conditional belief into ardent conviction . . . and reasoned advocate into the implacable zealot.” When shared beliefs take hold, as they often do in the academic bubble in which most criminologists live, ideological assumptions about crime and criminals can “take the form of the sacred and inviolable dogma of the one true faith, the questioning of which is heresy, and the opposing of which is profoundly evil.”

Miller’s observations have proved prophetic. Led by the work of Jonathan Haidt, a growing number of scholars now acknowledge that a lack of ideological diversity in the social sciences skews research in favor of leftist claims, which become the guiding principles of many fields, challenged only at the risk of harming one’s career. Liberal assumptions go unchecked and tendentious claims of evidence become fact, while countervailing evidence doesn’t get published or faces much more rigorous scrutiny than the assertions that it challenges.

Liberal political values can shape and distort the research that criminologists do and the public positions that they take. Lee Ellis and Anthony Walsh surveyed several hundred criminologists and found that self-reported ideological perspective was strongly associated with the type of theory that the scholar most often advocated, with liberal criminologists primarily supporting theories that locate the causes of crime in social and economic deprivation. Coauthor John Wright has recently collected data showing that political ideology predicts almost perfectly the policy positions of criminologists. On issues ranging from gun control to capital punishment to three-strikes laws, liberal criminologists showed almost no variation in their beliefs. (Needless to say, they dislike guns, oppose punitive sentences, and vehemently object to the death penalty.)

“Liberal criminologists primarily support theories that locate the causes of crime in social and economic deprivation.”

Most criminologists follow a “penal-harm” narrative, which seeks to account for all the ways that the criminal-justice system hinders the lives of offenders and their communities, generating and reinforcing social inequality and harming minorities, since they are the primary targets. Purveyors of the penal-harm narrative assert that conservative legislators demagogically used the upswing in crime rates during the late twentieth century—including more than 20,000 murders and hundreds of thousands of rapes, robberies, and assaults per year—to incite racial animosity and arouse support for overly punitive crime policies. The lawmakers pushed for more police and longer and more uniform criminal sentences, went after gangs and street crime—largely located in minority neighborhoods—and backed increased prison capacity. The result was an era of “mass incarceration.” Amazingly, the criminological community could not see that decades of rising American crime rates might have had something to do with why the public had supported the adoption of three-strikes laws, the imposition of other mandatory-minimum sentences, the rise in incarceration rates, and the death penalty. Instead, criminologists stick to the contention that the anticrime efforts were all about conservatives’ eagerness to harm vulnerable minority populations.

In 2012, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS)commissioned a scholarly review on the growth of incarceration. Leading these efforts was Jeremy Travis, director of the National Institute of Justice under President Bill Clinton and a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a liberal think tank. Travis recently stepped down as president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and has a long history in Democratic politics. To assess the evidence on incarceration, he staffed two committees with scholars who had, in one way or another, embraced the penal-harm narrative long before the NAS came knocking. Bruce Western, Michael Tonry, and Marie Gottschalk had written damning accounts of the damage supposedly wrought by rising incarceration rates. Tonry (a past president of the ASC) had previously equated incarceration with Guantánamo, the CIA rendition program, and torture; Gottschalk had condemned the rise of the “carceral state” as a method to control black populations. Their views dominated the NAS report, which does not differ substantially from the arguments of radical left-wing groups like Black Lives Matter.

What was achieved by ensuring that violent offenders served 85 percent of their sentences or that more murderers were sentenced to prison? Not much, according to the report, other than to reward racists. Crime rates, the authors argued, weren’t affected, but incarceration took minority men out of their neighborhoods, stripped them of voting rights, destabilized families, and sapped already-paltry economic resources from struggling communities. Such claims could seem plausible only if one believes—contrary to evidence and common sense—that career criminals contribute positively to their neighborhoods, enjoy stable and functional families, vote, and work. What they did, in reality, was to prey on their neighbors.

In the NAS report and in subsequent publications, Travis stated that a “just-the-facts” approach to policy assessment should be replaced by normative “values in the research process.” What “values” should displace objective evaluation? The answer: social justice. Scholars cannot claim to be dispassionate analysts when they embrace a social-justice agenda from the outset. Agenda-based politics will overrun their scientific objectivity.

While promoting the report, Travis and Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, an advocacy organization, published a New York Times op-ed assailing American prisons and holding up the German penal system as a positive exemplar. “To be sure, there are significant differences between the two countries,” the authors observed. “Most notably, America’s criminal justice system was constructed in slavery’s long shadow and is sustained today by the persistent forces of racism.” Not only does this statement shed light on the authors’ ideological views; it also manages to insult anyone who works in the criminal-justice system and who values public safety and order.

Social-justice themes suffuse the NAS report. Consider the authors’ argument that, while crime has gone up and down at different periods, the incarceration rate has never increased so dramatically as it has in recent years. This is true only in a limited sense. Crime rates didn’t vacillate yearly, as the report claims. From 1928 until about 1960, the rates rose slowly each year. Then, during the 1960s, crime rates exploded, launching a three-decade climb that would culminate in remarkable levels of violence. Yet incarceration rates remained flat prior to the 1960s and began to climb only thereafter. By the report’s own numbers, prior to 1980, only 40 percent of individuals arrested for murder were sentenced to prison (and murderers served only an average of five years). Less than 10 percent of those arrested for sexual assault in 1981 were sentenced to prison, and they spent an average of only 3.4 years behind bars. After sentencing reforms, 92 percent of convicted murderers were imprisoned for an average of 17 years, and 30 percent of those arrested for sexual assault were sent to prison for 6.6 years. Somehow, the NAS report authors see incarcerating only 40 percent of murderers as just, and sending more murderers and rapists to prison as unjust.

And what about the crime reductions associated with locking up more serious offenders or keeping them behind bars longer? This perennially important policy question was apparently too difficult to answer. After presenting a litany of complex statistical issues that complicate these types of analyses, the authors stated that “we cannot arrive at a precise estimate, or even a modest range of estimates, of the magnitude of the effect of incarceration on crime rates.”

Gauging the impact of any policy is challenging, but it seems untenable that the authors couldn’t craft a range of estimates based on various modeling assumptions. Several studies exist that have done just that, including William Spellman’s award-winning work, and most show modest crime reductions connected with incarceration. Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) and Thomas Marvell and Carlisle Moody found that each additional prisoner contributes to reductions ranging from 15 to 30 serious “index” crimes—which include murder, rape, aggravated assault, armed robbery, burglary, motor-vehicle theft, larceny, and arson. Unfortunately, criminologists either lack the tools and abilities to assess the amount of crime prevented through incarceration, or, more likely, they lacked the will to do so.

Amazingly, the criminological community couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge that “mass incarceration” was the result of decades of rising American crime rates. (MONICA ALMEIDA /THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX)

To understand why many criminologists refuse to acknowledge criminal behavior as a potent predictor of life outcomes—including premature mortality, health disparities, arrest and incarceration, and even being shot by the police—one must understand that most liberal criminologists feel strangely protective about criminals. Criminologists who work collaboratively with the police have done important work in understanding how best to respond to crime and how to prevent it. Their research, which often includes complex spatial analyses of crime patterns and which targets specific, high-rate offenders for arrest and prosecution, has been rigorously evaluated and confirmed. Yet liberal-minded criminologists dismiss these scholars as “administrative criminologists”—meaning that they help the state impose unfair social and economic arrangements.

Liberal criminologists avoid discussing the lifestyles that criminal offenders typically lead. Almost all serious offenders are men, and they usually come from families with long histories of criminal involvement, often spanning generations. They show temperamental differences early in life, begin offending in childhood or early adolescence, and rack up dozens of arrests. Their lives are chaotic and hedonistic, including the constant pursuit of drugs and sex. They produce many children with different women and rarely have the means—or inclination—to support them. Active offenders exploit others for their own benefit, including women, children, churches, and the social-welfare system. They commit many crimes before getting arrested, and they move in and out of the criminal-justice system for decades. Many also report enjoying acts of violence; the social-media accounts of martyred gangsters shot by police often illuminate this subculture. Perhaps not surprisingly, they see the police as another competing tribe that has to be manipulated, controlled, and sometimes confronted. In sum, the lives of persistent criminal offenders are often shockingly pathological. The nature of this world is hard to grasp without witnessing it firsthand.

Unfortunately, criminology has had a long history of suppressing evidence for expressly political reasons. For most of its history, the discipline has overtly censored research, for instance, on biological, genetic, and neurological factors that scientists have shown to be associated with antisocial traits and behavioral problems. Even today, despite lots of hard scientific evidence—such as that 50 percent of the variance in antisocial behavior is attributable to genetic factors, or neuroimaging studies that show systemic structural and functional brain differences between offenders and non-offenders—those who pursue this line of research get branded as racists or even eugenicists. We have personally experienced hostile receptions when presenting our work in these areas at professional conferences and have been excoriated in the anonymous-review process when attempting to publish our papers. The disciplinary animus toward the study of biological factors extends to other individual factors, including intelligence and personality, and to a range of traits, such as callous and unemotional behavior, psychopathy, and self-control.

When it comes to disciplinary biases, however, none is so strong or as corrupting as liberal views on race. Disproportionate black involvement in violent crime represents the elephant in the room amid the current controversy over policing in the United States. Homicide numbers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Supplementary Homicide Reports, 1976–2005 indicate that young African-American males account for homicide victims at levels that are ten to 20 times greater than their proportion of the population and account for homicide offenders at levels that are 15 to 35 times greater than their proportion of the population. The black-white gap in armed-robbery offending has historically ranged between ten to one and 15 to one. Even in forms of crime that are allegedly the province of white males—such as serial murder—blacks are overrepresented as offenders by a factor of two. For all racial groups, violent crime is strongly intraracial, and the intraracial dynamic is most pronounced among blacks. In more than 90 percent of cases, the killer of a black victim is a black perpetrator.

Criminologists talk about the race-crime connection behind closed doors, and often in highly guarded language; the topic is a lightning rod for accusations of racial hostility that can be professionally damaging. They avoid discussing even explicitly racist examples of black-on-white crime such as flash-mob assaults, “polar bear hunting,” and the “knockout game.” What criminologists won’t say in public is that black offending differences have existed since data have been collected and that these differences are behind the racial disparities in arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. They also won’t tell you that, despite claims of widespread racial discrimination in the justice system, legal variables—namely, the number of prior arrests and the seriousness of the crime for which the offender has currently been arrested—account for all but a small fraction of the variance in system outcomes. Nor will they tell you the truth about politically correct remedies, such as diversifying police forces, hiring black police chiefs, or training officers in the alleged effects of implicit bias: that these measures won’t reduce racial disparities in crime.

“Fifty years of research on the topic have failed to find the smoking gun linking justice-system disparities to racism. ”

In the aftermath of the Department of Justice reports on Ferguson and Baltimore, it may sound odd to hear that the system does a good job of processing individuals with comparable criminal backgrounds similarly, regardless of race. But 50 years of research on the topic have failed to find the smoking gun linking justice-system disparities to racism. Claims to the contrary often manipulate data or ignore them altogether. In the case of the DOJ reports, and in the eyes of many criminologists, racism has to be the cause of these disparities because recognizing the truth about the huge racial imbalance in crime is politically intolerable.

The values that characterize an academic community can’t help but affect, to some degree, the work of that community—in the case of academic criminology, cutting off research or leading to distorted conclusions. But when entering the realm of public policy, these biases can translate into disastrous consequences for real people. Public safety may be compromised, and valuable and limited resources may be squandered. Under the best circumstances, criminal-justice policy confronts a complex and imperfect reality of criminals and their victims; the stakes are too high to accept research tainted by political bias. The hands-off policing now advocated by many liberals doesn’t work, and it endangers the lives of police and citizens at the same time that it erodes the legitimacy of law and order.

Reliable evidence tells us that the most effective strategies to reduce crime involve police focusing on crime hot spots, targeting active offenders for arrest, and helping to solve local problems surrounding disorder and incivility. Putting predatory, recidivistic offenders in jail or in prison remains the best way to protect the public—especially those who live in high-crime neighborhoods. Lower-level offenders can often be supervised in the community, and many benefit from programs that seek to modify drug and alcohol addictions that contribute to their criminal behavior. Despite our best efforts, though, most will re-offend and reenter the system at some point.

The current national conversation about criminal-justice reform is well-intentioned, but we run the risk of succumbing to passionate rhetoric and to being misled by promises built on flimsy evidence. Gains made in reducing crime have been hard-won, but faulty reform can easily erode them. Its costs will be measured in lost lives and suffering. The reality of crime does not easily lend itself to analysis by spreadsheet; nor is it a matter of arcane theory or philosophical principles to those who’ve been victimized. Reform efforts must recognize these stubborn facts. We encourage policymakers to listen to what criminologists have to say—but we also encourage them to pay attention to what they don’t say, which is often more important.

Top Photo: The eminent political scientist James Q. Wilson’s work had a major impact on public policy, even as he found himself ostracized by academic criminologists. (AP PHOTO)


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