The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 9, 2013

What we can learn from the debate about Syria to improve crime policy

September 9, 2013

  syria

Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee announced that it had reached an internal agreement on the parameters authorizing the Obama administration to use military force in Syria. The administration’s stated goal of military intervention is to deter and degrade the Assad administration’s ability to serially mass murder its own citizens. This week, the full Congress will take up the issue and debate the limits on the U.S. military’s use of force.

If the congressional military authorization limits the military to a level of engagement short of the removal of Assad, the whole debate can be neatly summarized as one designed to establish the performance targets that will signal victory. It will answer the question of what needs to be accomplished in Syria in order for the US and its allies to have “won.”

It also raises an interesting corollary question. If we as a nation cannot engage in military action without a consensus about how it fits with broader strategic goals, the specific objectives of the mission, and performance targets to define success, why are we willing to engage in social policy without defining any of those critical first principles?

Consider my area of study, crime and justice. Crime is extraordinarily expensive, causing perhaps as much as $2 trillion in harms annually. More than 7 million Americans are under criminal justice system supervision at any given time. There are more than 14,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. with more than one million employees.  Private security forces also employ about one million people (and interestingly enough, this one-to-one ratio of public law enforcement to private security mirrors the ratio of U.S. soldiers to private contractors in Iraq at the height of the war).

Thus, it seems reasonable to expect that the sheer scale of the crime problem in the U.S. demands the identification of first principles of crime fighting similar to those under discussion with respect to Syria.

Today, the U.S. is about as far away from consensus on crime fighting as a unified nation can be. For instance, the predominant policing strategy in America today—though by no means the only policing strategy—is what is known as hot spots policing or COMPSTAT. The strategy is employed by as many as 70 percent of law enforcement agencies.

The general idea is that police keep detailed data not only on the number and types of crimes, but also where and when the crimes occur. This allows police to identify times and places that become “hot” (i.e., experience an unusual amount of crime in a short period of time). The approach is intuitive, and has been credited by its proponents with substantially reducing crimes (although there are critics as well).

One criticism that has received too little attention is that this approach, in its most basic form, simply seeks to drive crime back to baseline levels. It’s the Whack-A-Mole approach to policing—as long as crime rates don’t shoot up to conspicuous levels, everyone is off the hook.

This helps explain why the U.S. tolerates astonishingly high levels of crime. The U.S. homicide rate is four times greater than Canada’s, more than 10 times greater than Japan’s, and higher than every single NATO country and most of Eastern Europe.

A lot of the blame can be laid at the feet of federalism, which prohibits a national policing authority and thus prevents best practices from being rolled out nationwide.

But perhaps the Syria debate can shake loose some creative thinking about the criticality of first principles and objective performance targets.

We should have a national dialogue about how much crime we are actually willing to tolerate and set performance targets that define what is acceptable. We should also follow the lead of our colleagues in the education sector, who face the same barriers from federalism, but have managed to create—without the federal government—Common Core State Standards for education that define success for schools and students.

If it is important enough to set defined goals for education and military interventions, it is certainly important enough to do so to fight crime.

Illustration by Tim Meko, Urban Institute

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