The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 11, 2012

Building a path toward a safer future

August 11, 2012

America has become an increasingly safe place over the past two decades. If you are under 40, you are safer on average than you have ever been in your lifetime. Despite this success, crime policy and anti-crime public spending remain virtually unchanged. Even the deep recession has not caused a rethinking about our priorities.

Crime policy continues to be driven by half-truths and myths. Critical incidents, like the recent mass murder in Aurora, lead to poor analysis that only perpetuates partisan division. This partisanship in turn leads to the creation of bad laws like Stand Your Ground. More important, however, it distracts from what the real discussion should be: how much crime are we willing to tolerate as a society, and how should we achieve that level?

That discussion should begin with the premise that we ought to do those things that prevent the largest number of crimes at the smallest possible cost. This goal requires a willingness to make profound changes in how we investigate crimes, whom we arrest and imprison, what services and treatment we provide to inmates, and, finally, how we pay for crime prevention. It will be a substantial task, but we already know how to start.

Consider what it would take to incorporate two proven anti-crime techniques into standard practice.

Despite what is shown on television and in the movies, DNA is rarely used to identify unknown suspects. One important reason is a perception by law enforcement that DNA collection and testing is too expensive to use for relatively minor crimes like burglary. Our analysis finds that DNA evidence can be cost-effectively used to aid the investigation of property crimes like burglary, and that the suspects identified by DNA have much more serious criminal histories than suspects identified by other means. If investigators embraced DNA evidence collection in property crimes, potentially hundreds of thousands of offenders who would otherwise not be identified could be convicted. And broader use of DNA would likely prevent many wrongful convictions.

However, a substantial investment in infrastructure would be required, as at the moment, police and crime labs are not equipped to handle such an onslaught of cases.

Paying for crime prevention is a critical part of the issue. We know that incarcerating people can prevent them from committing new crimes, but the costs are astonishing. Recently, a large body of research, including our own, has found that the decades-old myth that “nothing works” in treating offenders is wrong. An avalanche of recent research points to treatment as the most cost-effective weapon in the drug war arsenal.

Each year, almost 1.5 million people at risk of drug abuse and drug dependence are arrested, but few receive treatment. That treatment would cost about $15 billion but would result in more than $45 billion in savings as treated people commit fewer crimes. And saving a cool $30 billion annually, while improving public safety, should excite politicians and voters alike.

These two changes—DNA and substance-abuse treatment—will pay for themselves in terms of savings to people who are not victimized. However, those savings are not recoverable. Suppose drug treatment helps an offender stay clean and not commit new crimes. As a result, I am not robbed and beaten in the streets. I’ve potentially been spared thousands of dollars in harm. The problem is, I don’t know about it.

Thus, it is difficult to entice policymakers to make these investments. A potential solution is the use of new mechanisms to encourage private investment in traditionally public-sector activities. Social impact bonds, B-Corps, and other new financing arrangements have begun to be tested in the United States. They have the potential to revolutionize justice-system financing and perhaps raise the billions necessary to fund drug treatment, DNA labs, and other effective programs at a level where they can really make a difference.

For all this to happen, we must step back from two decades of stagnant crime policy. We must reengage in a national discussion that first puts to bed tired myths and ineffective policies and then implements forward-looking and proven techniques geared toward justice and public safety.

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