Criminology & Public Policy

Published by Wiley
Online ISSN: 1745-9133
Print ISSN: 1538-6473
This article examines the growth in marijuana misdemeanor arrests in New York City (NYC) from 1980 to 2003 and its differential impact on blacks and Hispanics. Since 1980, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) expanded its use of arrest and detention for minor offenses under its quality-of-life (QOL) policing initiative. Arrest data indicate that during the 1990s the primary focus of QOL policing became smoking marijuana in public view (MPV). By 2000, MPV had become the most common misdemeanor arrest, accounting for 15% of all NYC adult arrests and rivaling controlled substance arrests as the primary focus of drug abuse control. Of note, most MPV arrestees have been black or Hispanic. Furthermore, black and Hispanic MPV arrestees have been more likely to be detained prior to arraignment, convicted, and sentenced to jail than their white counterparts. In light of the disparities, we recommend that the NYPD consider scaling back on MPV enforcement and reducing the harshness of treatment by routinely issuing Desk Appearance Tickets when the person is not wanted on other charges, so that most MPV arrestees would not be detained. Furthermore, we recommend that legislators should consider making smoking marijuana in public a violation and not a misdemeanor. Lastly, we suggest ways that NYC could monitor the effectiveness of these policy modifications to assure that the city continues to meet its goals for order maintenance.
With declining high-school graduation rates and comparatively high rates of adolescent violence and problem behavior in this country, we are in a moment of great need for effective federal and state policy to prevent juvenile delinquency. Leading intellectuals in the field, including Ron Haskins (Haskins and Baron, 2011), Jon Baron (Baron and Haskins, 2011), and Steve Barnett, have recently called for adoption of a technocracy: They have asked policy makers to use the science of prevention to guide policy making and funding. Haskins and Baron (2011) wrote persuasive essays arguing that if policy and funding decisions were made based on evidence of what works, then we would experience better population-level outcomes in education, crime, and child well-being; furthermore, we would save costs and solve the deficit crisis. Faith in technocracy has won the day (mostly) in health care: It is virtually impossible to enter a hospital with a disease and not have both patients and physicians call up data on its prevalence, course, and treatment. Insurance providers make reimbursement decisions based (mostly) on evidence. We can point to improvements in the population-level health of our citizenry that result. One might quibble with the validity of the empirical evidence, but we cannot quibble that as public policy we have accepted the technocratic philosophy that empirical evidence should rule the day in medicine. The same can be said about energy, the environment, and the economy. But in matters affecting children, we are a long way from a technocratic culture. Jon Baron (2007) summed up the contrast well: In medicine … rigorous evaluations are common, and often drive policy and practice. By contrast, in education and most other areas of social policy, such studies are relatively rare. In these areas, policy and practice tend to be driven more by advocacy studies and anecdote than by rigorous evidence, costing billions of dollars yet often failing to produce meaningful improvements in educational achievement, employment and earnings, or rates of substance abuse and criminal behavior. (p. 32)
After-school programs (ASPs) provide supervision and activities for children in the period between the end of school and parent’s return from work and have intuitive appeal in the U.S., where it is estimated that 33% of children ages 12–14 years with a single working parent or working parents are in self-care (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). As noted by Cross, Gottfredson, Wilson, Rorie, and Connell (2009, this issue), 65% of voters believe ASPs are an “absolute necessity” for their communities (Afterschool Alliance, 2002). As we have learned many times in the past, however, the fact that a program for youth may seem logical and appealing does not mean that it will be effective or even that it will not have, overall, more negative than positive effects (e.g., boot camps and wilderness challenges; Dishion, Dodge, and Lansford, 2006). In this essay, the value of ASPs for middle and high school youth will be considered.
Research Summary Over the past two decades, researchers have been increasingly interested in measuring the risk of offender recidivism as a means of advancing public safety and of directing treatment interventions. In this context, one instrument widely used in assessing offenders is the Level of Service Inventory-Revised (LSI-R). Recently, however, the LSI-R has been criticized for being a male-specific assessment instrument that is a weak predictor of criminal behavior in females. Through the use of meta-analytic techniques, we assessed this assertion. A total of 27 effect sizes yielded an average r value of .35 ([confidence interval] CI = .34 to .36) for the relationship of the LSI-R with recidivism for female offenders (N= 14,737). When available, we also made within-sample comparisons based on gender. These comparisons produced effect sizes for males and females that were statistically similar. Policy Implications These results are consistent with those generated in previous research on the LSI-R. They call into question prevailing critiques that the LSI-R has predictive validity for male but not for female offenders. At this stage, it seems that corrections officials should be advised that the LSI-R remains an important instrument for assessing all offenders as a prelude to the delivery of treatment services, especially those based on the principles of effective intervention. Critics should be encouraged, however, to construct and validate through research additional gender-specific instruments that revise, if not rival, the LSI-R.
The heavy reliance on the use of incarceration in an attempt to address the crime problem has resulted in a dramatic growth in the number of state prisoners over the past 30 years. In recent years, however, a growing concern has developed about the impact that large numbers of offenders released from prison will have on crime rates. Using a state panel data set for 46 states from 1974 to 2002, this study demonstrates that although prison population growth seems to be associated with statistically significant decreases in crime rates, increases in the number of prisoners released from prison seem to be significantly associated with increases in crime. Because we control for changes in prison population levels, we attribute the apparent positive influences on crime that seem to follow prison releases to the criminogenic effects of prison. Policy makers should continue to serve the public interest by carefully considering policies that are designed to reduce incarceration rates and thus assuage the criminogenic effects of prison. These policies may include changes in sentencing, changes in probation and/or parole practices, or better funding of reentry services prerelease and postrelease.
Research Summary: Using panel data from 188 large cities during 1980–1999, we examined the possible homicide promoting effects of “three-strikes” laws. Results indicated that cities in states with three-strikes laws experienced short-term increases in homicide rates of 13% to 14% and long-term increases of 16% to 24% compared with cities in states without the laws.Policy Implications: Our results emphasize the fact that rarely are the possible unintended negative consequences of policy directives considered and point to the need for policy makers to consider both intended and unintended consequences of policy directives before the directives are codified.
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Few studies have examined time-based variations in recidivism rates despite the substantial variation that seems to be characteristic of some states. A recent publication by the Tennessee Department of Correction indicates that reincarceration rates increased significantly for parole release cohorts from 1993 to 1997. I reexamine the Tennessee data with additional years and confirm the sharp increase in reincarceration rates, although subsequent years show a decline back to 1993 levels. Findings indicate that time-based variation in the return rate is not attributable to differences in the populations being released, nor does it seem to be associated with increases in criminal behavior as measured by new arrests or new criminal convictions. Results suggest that violations of the technical conditions of parole rather than increased criminal behavior largely account for the trend, that parole release was used as a “back-door” means of controlling and stabilizing rapidly growing prison populations, and that the use of parole in this manner was associated with increased rates of return to prison. This article highlights issues with parole technical violators, release decisions, and revocation criteria, as well as their relationships with correctional systems. Large variations in parole grant rates over the study period suggest a lack of consistently applied objective risk criteria for parole release and may validate some criticisms of arbitrariness in parole release decisions. Increased grant rates do not seem to be associated with increased rates of criminal behavior, which suggests that the more conservative grant rates in recent years could be raised without increased risk to public safety. There also seem to be significant differences in violation rates by region that may indicate inconsistencies in the application of violation criteria.
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Research Summary:In November 2000, California voters approved the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act (SACPA), also known as “Proposition 36,” which gives adults convicted of nonviolent drug possession offenses the option of participating in drug treatment in lieu of incarceration. Using data from an earlier evaluation of community treatment programs, we examined the subsample of clients admitted to drug treatment during the law's first six months (July 1, 2001 and December 31, 2001; N = 3,748) in 13 counties to describe an initial cohort of SACPA clients (SACPA; N = 688) regarding their participation in treatment and their subsequent rearrest outcomes. These data were compared with other criminal justice-referred clients (Non-SACPA-CJ; N = 1,178) and with clients who entered treatment without a current criminal justice status (Non-CJ; N = 1,882). Relative to Non-CJ clients, CJ (SACPA or Non-SACPA) clients with severe drug problems were significantly less likely to be treated in residential programs. Subsequent analyses further revealed a significant severity by modality interaction, with high-severity/outpatient clients being most likely to be rearrested on a drug-related charge in the 12 months after treatment admission. Although the prevalence of arrests decreased for all three groups after treatment admission, SACPA clients remained more likely to be rearrested for a drug crime even after controlling for the interaction between drug use severity and treatment modality.Policy Implications:These findings underscore the importance of client-treatment matching (based on addiction severity) and of actively applying legal pressure to increase treatment retention and maximize potential treatment benefits.
Research Summary: We studied a representative sample of 360 young-adult couples from a birth cohort. We found abuse was a dyadic process; both partners’ personal characteristics increased abuse risk, and both sexes participated in abuse, particularly in clinical abusive couples having injury and/or official agency intervention. Treating only men may not reduce risk completely for most young couples. Policy Implications: If replicated, the findings would suggest policy encouraging development and evaluation of programs to reduce physical abuse by women. Prevention programs could aim to reduce abusive behavior by both sexes and promote victim safety among both sexes. Policies against treating women in abusive couples may act counter to prevention.
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If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed. - Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
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This study examined 40 African-American young men's direct and vicarious experiences with police harassment and violence, and their impact on perceptions of police. Study findings highlight the value of using comprehensive and nuanced measures of police/citizen encounters and underscore the importance of examining the impact of accumulated adverse experiences. The findings have implications for police oversight policies. In particular, police organizations should work toward developing complaint review processes that are not merely accessible to citizens but also inspire confidence among them. These efforts are crucial toward improving the image of police in minority communities and positively impacting citizen trust of, and satisfaction with, the police.
Research Summary Unsupervised after-school time for adolescents is a concern for parents and policymakers alike. Evidence linking unsupervised adolescent socializing to problem behavior outcomes heightens this concern among criminologists. Routine activities theory suggests that, when youth peer groups congregate away from adult authority, both opportunity for and motivation to engage in deviant acts increase. After-school programs are a possible solution to unsupervised teen socializing during afternoon hours and are much in demand. However, empirical research has yet to test the relationship between the availability of after-school programs and youth routine activities. This study presents evidence from a multisite, randomized, controlled trial of an after-school program for middle-school students in an urban school district. Policy Implications Youth in the treatment group engaged in less unsupervised socializing after school than youth in the control group but not as much less as would be expected if the after-school program was providing consistent supervision to youth who would otherwise be unsupervised. Additional analyses examined why the influence of the after-school program was not more pronounced. We found that, although program attendance was related to decreases in unsupervised socializing, the program did not attract many delinquency-prone youths who were unsupervised, which suggests that the students most in need of the program did not benefit. Furthermore, data obtained from a mid-year activity survey revealed that youth in the study were highly engaged in a variety of after-school activities. The addition of the after-school program into the mixture of available activities had little effect on the frequency with which students participated in organized activities after school.
Research Summary: Oregon's Measure 11, a mandatory minimum sentencing policy passed in 1994, had fewer negative system impacts than had been anticipated by many state and local criminal justice administrators, due largely to the fact that prosecutors exercised the discretion provided them under the law to selectively prosecute cases. Consequently, fewer Measure 11-eligible cases were sentenced under the relevant statues than before passage of the measure, and more were sentenced to lesser related offenses. At the same time, incarceration rates and sentence lengths increased for both Measure 11 and lesser related offenses. Trial rates increased for two years after Measure 11 took effect before reverting to previous levels.Policy Implications: The “unintended consequences” that Measure 11 produced should not have been unexpected. Our research indicates that the entire system will quickly adapt to mitigate the more draconian outcomes predicted by those who assume a simplistic implementation, which underscores the importance of understanding system dynamics and inter-relationships before implementing reform, as well as the pitfalls of designing legislation for either symbolic appeal or formal logic rather than for actual effect.
The author gratefully acknowledges the comments made by Craig Hemmens, Janet Mullings, and Chad Trulson on an earlier version of this essay. Direct correspondence to James W. Marquart, Director, Program in Criminology and Sociology, School of Economic, Political, and Policy Sciences, The University of Texas at Dallas, 800 West Campbell Road, Richardson, TX 75080-3021 (e-mail:
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Research Summary:Current knowledge about violence among public housing residents is extremely limited. Much of what we know about violence in and around public housing is derived from analysis of Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data or victimization surveys of public housing residents. The results of these studies suggest that fear of crime among public housing residents is high and that violent offense rates may be higher in areas that contain public housing compared with similar areas without public housing. Yet, “[r]ecorded crime rates (and victimization rates) are an index not of the rate of participation in crime by residents of an area, but of the rate of crime (or victimization) that occurs in an area whether committed by residents or non-residents” (Weatherburn et al., 1999:259). Therefore, neither UCR nor victimization data measurement strategies address whether crime in and around public housing emanates from those who reside in public housing. Additionally, much of this research focuses on atypical public housing—large developments with high-rise buildings located in major metropolitan areas. To complement the existing literature, we compare rates of self-reported crime and violence among adolescents who reside in public housing in Rochester, N.Y., and Pittsburgh, Pa., with adolescents from the same cities who do not live in public housing. In Rochester, property crime and violence participation rates during adolescence and early adulthood among those in public housing are statistically equivalent to participation rates among those not in public housing. In Pittsburgh, living in public housing during late adolescence and early adulthood— particularly in large housing developments—increases the risk for violent offending, but not for property offending. The current study relies on a relatively small number of subjects in public housing at any single point in time and is based on cross-sectional analyses. Even so, there are several important policy implications that can be derived from this study, given that it moves down a path heretofore largely unexplored.Policy Implications:If replicated, our findings indicate that not all public housing is inhabited disproportionately by those involved in crime; that to develop appropriate responses, it is essential to discover if the perpetrators of violence are residents or trespassers; that policy should target reducing violence specifically and not crime in general; that a modification to housing allocation policies that limits, to the extent possible, placing families with children in late adolescence into large developments might reduce violence perpetrated by residents; that limited resources directed at reducing violence among residents should be targeted at those developments or buildings that actually have high rates of participation in violence among the residents; and that best practices may be derived from developments where violence is not a problem.
The research presented here empirically evaluates the claim that sex offender notification is positively correlated with the public's adoption of protective behavior, while considering the impact ecological context has on the decision to adopt protective behaviors. This study assumes that people make decisions about their personal safety behaviors after calculating their perceived victimization risk; risk that is based upon a number of both personal and ecological variables including one's sex, race, parent status, neighborhood type, and whether or not one has received notification about a sex offender residing in close proximity. Holding that these factors impact behavior, a person then acts—or does not act—according to his or her calculation of risk. Because community notification is often geographically specific and because it is well documented that known sex offenders are concentrated in socially disadvantaged neighborhoods this study gives primacy to measuring protective behavior differences between socially disorganized neighborhoods and socially organized neighborhoods. Specifically, this research asks:
One recent aspect of discourse about sex offenders is a debate about whether juvenile sex offending should be targeted with adult–style registration and stigma. But data on sex offending are quite thin, and data on the link between juvenile sex offending and adult careers are almost nonexistent. In fact, public policies with regard to sex offenders and the nature of their sexual offending assume that they are persistent specialists whose sexual offending is both recidivistic and dangerous. Yet, research on these assumptions is mixed, which leads some researchers to conclude that just about anything can be stated with regard to sex offenders. In an effort to overcome the limitations of previous research (highly select samples, short follow–up periods, lack of comparison group), the current study employs data from three birth cohorts from Racine, Wisconsin to examine the issue of juvenile to adult sex offending and its implications for current sex offender public policy.
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Clinicians and researchers have strongly recommended culturally-focused counseling with African-American men arrested for domestic violence. An experimental clinical trial tested the effectiveness of this approach against conventional cognitive-behavioral counseling in all-African-American groups and in racially-mixed groups (N = 501). No significant difference was found in the reassault rate reported by the men's female partners over a 12-month follow-up period (23% overall). During that period, men in the racially-mixed groups were, moreover, half as likely to be rearrested for domestic violence as the men in the culturally-focused groups. The men's level of racial identification did not significantly affect the outcomes of the counseling options. Simply adding a culturally-focused counseling group to domestic violence programs does not seem in itself to improve outcomes. In the current study, the culturally-focused counseling was an appendage to an existing agency closely linked to the criminal justice system. Culturally-focused counseling may prove to be more effective within community-based organizations tied to local services and supports.
Research Summary: This study is an outcome evaluation of a residential aftercare component provided to offenders graduating from the Quehanna Motivational Boot Camp in Quehanna, Pennsylvania. Capitalizing on a policy change that set up a natural experimental design, we use survival analysis to compare recidivism outcomes of a control group of 383 offenders, who graduated before the mandatory 90-day residential aftercare component was added, to an experimental group of 337 offenders, who graduated after the policy change. Our findings reveal that offenders who receive the mandatory aftercare component have significantly lower recidivism rates at six months, one year, and two years post-release.Policy Implications: These findings are important for policy related to both boot camp programs and offender reentry in general. First, our findings suggest that adding a residential aftercare component to a boot camp program has the potential to (1) greatly reduce failure rates and (2) increase the time to failure. Second, our findings have implications that reach beyond boot camp. As the number of incarcerated offenders returning to local communities continues to increase, offender reentry has become a national issue. Our findings are promising as they suggest that a continuum of care model designed to extend services and help offenders overcome immediate obstacles to reintegration may indeed reduce criminal recidivism.
Top-cited authors
David L. Weisburd
  • Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Geoffrey Alpert
  • University of South Carolina
Shawn D. Bushway
  • University at Albany, The State University of New York
Edward J. Latessa
  • University of Cincinnati
Daniel S. Nagin
  • Carnegie Mellon University