The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 7, 2011

The Right Kind of Attention to Crime

November 7, 2011

What kind of attention promotes effective crime policy? On the one hand, too much attention seems to undermine effective policy making.  Keeping crime largely off of the front page is critical to rational, deliberate criminal justice policy-making. When crime makes headlines, crime policy gravitates toward the crime du jour, and is easily hijacked by emotions and by politicians fanning emotional flames.

As a case in point, states’ fiscal crises are leading them to rethink sentencing policies – in ways that were unthinkable during the crime surge of the 1980s and early 1990s. Only after crime has declined for over fifteen years can policy-makers consider lowering sentences and redirecting prison dollars toward less punitive approaches that can maintain public safety. Possibilities include alternative sanctions, alternative use of criminal justice resources, and child-focused crime prevention. But when the level of attention to crime is high, the political risk of being painted as “soft on crime” makes such reforms all but impossible.

And, yet, without enough attention to crime, do we lose the political motivation to fund crime prevention, criminal justice reforms, and rigorous research and evaluation? After all, even with the crime drop, our violent crime rates are still much too high, and higher than other developed countries. Don’t we need continued attention to crime until criminal justice reforms and policy research receives funding commensurate with the importance of crime?

My conclusion is that we need systematic, sustained, and moderate attention to crime and criminal justice.  Such lower-intensity attention allows policy-makers and the public to consider sentencing policy across all crimes, not just crime by crime, as happens in response to crime crises. We are long overdue for a sustained and systematic examination of criminal justice policy, along the lines proposed by Sen. Jim Webb, in his National Criminal Justice Commission legislation calling for “a blue-ribbon commission to look at every aspect of our criminal justice system with an eye toward reshaping the criminal justice system from top to bottom.” This measure has been blocked in the Senate for now, as noted this week by the Washington Post and New York Times, although it received bipartisan support in the House last year. The time to launch such an initiative is now, before the next unanticipated crime crisis or crime wave.

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