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Posts By John Roman

Bio: John Roman, Ph.D. is a senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where his research focuses on evaluations of innovative crime control policies and justice programs. Dr. Roman is also the executive director of the District of Columbia Crime Policy Institute (DCPI) and manages DCPI’s operations, provides oversight of all research, and leads the development and implementation of the cost-benefit model. He directs several studies funded by the National Institute of Justice, including two randomized trials of the use of DNA in property crime investigations, an evaluation of post-conviction DNA evidence testing to estimate rates of wrongful conviction, and a study developing a blueprint for the use of forensic evidence by law enforcement. Dr. Roman is the coeditor of Cost Benefit Analysis and Crime Control, and, Juvenile Drug Courts and Teen Substance Abuse and the author of dozens of scholarly articles and book chapters. Dr. Roman serves as a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and an affiliated professor at Georgetown University.

Here's how can maximize their innovative effort to collect police shooting data

Author: Zach McDade and John Roman

| Posted: August 21st, 2014




In the wake of the recent deaths at police hands of Michael Brown, Kajieme Powell, and so many others, people have rightly called for a thorough empirical analysis of how often and under what circumstances the police shoot civilians.

Unfortunately, to our knowledge, the data don't exist for that analysis. This is likely not the result of some grand police conspiracy; the problem is we don’t know much about most non-fatal shootings. It’s extremely time-consuming for police to record the facts of every incident, and police departments simply lack those resources.

We therefore applaud's effort to crowdsource the assembly of an incident-level dataset of police shootings of civilians. Having those data is important for public policy and, in our view, for addressing the important social questions related to these events and dominating headlines.

But to be useful, the data must be valid and reliable. As social scientists, we spend a lot of time thinking about this in our own research. Valid police shooting data must measure exactly what we want them to measure. That is, they must report all incidents of police officers shooting civilians and only incidents of officers shooting civilians. And the data must be reliable, meaning that someone could use the same data collection process again to produce the exact same dataset.

So, what can Deadspin do to ensure validity and reliability?

1) Ensure that the data are unbiased.

Data collectors and the Deadspin quality controllers should cull reported shooting incidents from every valid news source and not just media outlets from major cities. Clear reports of police shootings in the The New York Times or Chicago Tribune count, but so do reports in the Northern Wyoming Daily News, which might be the only source on a police-shooting incident in Washakie County, Wyoming (population 8,400). As long as the details of that incident are clear and not in dispute, it should be counted.

2) Set rules for judging reliability and validity.

An incident is valid for this dataset if one or more such news sources unambiguously reports it as an officer shooting, and no other reputable source contradicts that report. When the details are unclear or in dispute, the case should be included in the dataset but flagged as having an ambiguous status*.

The data are reliable if the collection process is reliable. Each collector must receive the same set of precise instructions on how to collect data and how to troubleshoot unclear news reports. Collectors should also have a forum for reporting questions or problems, and Deadspin staff or social scientists should document all decisions and judgment calls for future reference.

3) Quality check the data.

The beauty of this project is that it relies on cheap and abundant labor. Deadspin should take advantage of that again after the data are fully assembled. They should randomly select a sample of the days for which incidents were gathered—say, 10 or 15 percent of all days—and crowdsource them to different data collectors. If a second crowd can use the exact same process and generate the exact same results as the original collectors, we can feel comfortable that the full dataset is (close to) valid.

At the end, the whole process should be written up in clear and non-scientific terms, including documentation of questions, troubleshooting, and judgment calls. Deadspin should then invite social scientists to review that process. It's possible that staff will have to go back and make some improvements or adjustments, which is a frustrating but necessary part of every data collection process.

4) Gather as much data as possible.

Once the data exist, people will naturally want to use them to answer big questions: Was the killing justified? Was it racially motivated? Did the officer act out of line or simply make a tough judgment call? Were drugs involved? Were lives at stake?

Quality news reports will provide a lot of the context we want, and collectors should take care to gather as many of the facts as systematically as possible. How many officers were present? How many discharged their weapons? What were their races, genders, and ages? What was the race, gender, and age of the victim? Was the incident outside on the street or in a house? Did the police suspect drugs were present? Did the civilian demonstrate a threat of force? What other details were unique to that case, but are still relevant?

Deadspin's effort is innovative and exciting. With care and diligence, this dataset could help us answer some tough questions about tragic events.

*This post has been updated. It originally suggested leaving out cases that are unclear or whose facts are in dispute. Better to include those cases but clearly note their unambiguous status.

Follow Zach McDade and John Roman on Twitter.

Photo: Police in Ferguson, MO. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Filed under: Adolescents and Youth, Crime and Justice, Crime and justice statistics, Justice Policy Center, Policing and crime prevention, Victims of crime |Tags: , , , ,
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Should we arm citizens and let them police themselves?

Author: Sam Bieler and John Roman

| Posted: August 18th, 2014




A city with limited resources and stubbornly high crime rates, Detroit is ripe for justice system innovation. Police Chief James Craig has seized on this opportunity, implementing a broad range of changes to the department.

These reforms appear to be making an impact. In the past year, Detroit has experienced significant declines in robberies, break-ins, and carjackings. Craig has split the credit for Detroit’s recent crime decline between the work of his officers and a policy suggestion he made in late 2013: encouraging citizens to carry concealed firearms.

Detroiters appear to be heeding the call. In 2013, Michigan State Police issued 6,974 concealed carry permits in Detroit, more than double the number issued in 2009. However, attributing the crime drop to armed citizens and advocating for more of the same may be opening a Pandora’s box.

Craig’s equation is simple: more armed citizens means less crime. But research shows it’s not quite that straightforward. The effect of privately owned firearms on crime is easily one of social science’s most hotly debated topics. Every imaginable conclusion has been reached at least once: policymakers can take their pick of studies showing that more citizens carrying firearms reduces crime, increases crime, or has no clear effect.

Without good research, it’s impossible to determine what’s actually brought the city’s crime rate down: policing, more civilians with guns, or some factor we’ve yet to discover. As has been said many times, when you conflate correlation and causation, you can come to all sorts of silly policy conclusions.

Given the muddled guns-crime relationship, policymakers may want to look at what research does tell us about increasing gun access to determine whether encouraging citizens to arm themselves is sound public policy. Beyond crime rates, there are verified consequences to expanded gun ownership that should be considered.

Domestic violence and gun ownership have a troubling relationship. As our colleague Janine Zweig has noted, female intimate partner homicide remains stubbornly high, making it a particular policy concern for law enforcement. Gun ownership has consistently been linked with increased risk of intimate partner homicide, particularly for women. Indeed, firearms are particularly common in the homes of battered women, where abusive partners may use them to both threat and assault. The consistent link between firearm access and serious intimate partner violence should give any public official a reason to pause before encouraging a community to increase the number of weapons in circulation.

Gun ownership also entails a significant suicide risk. While the relationship between crime and gun ownership is still the topic of debate, the finding that guns increase the risk of suicide has been consistently and repeatedly demonstrated. Citizens should be free to balance personal defense and increased suicide risk for themselves, but policymakers should think twice before encouraging behavior with such a severe, clearly identified risk.

Giving citizens the choice to own a firearm is one thing, but given the risks and the lack of clear evidence that guns deter crime, it is worth reconsidering whether encouraging gun ownership should be a police-endorsed tactic. Instead, policymakers’ tactics of first resort should be evidence-based solutions with proven track records of reducing crime, like gang and gun violence interruption projects and programs that divert juveniles from the justice system.

Detroit has made important strides in fighting crime, and Craig’s reforms have likely played a key role in making the city safer. Detroit police have embraced this momentum, developing a strategic plan that puts more officers on the street and uses rigorous analysis to support officers with sound data and policing tactics.

Advocating for more guns in the hands of civilians might be a step back. When it comes to making Detroit safer, Craig might be better off continuing to place his bets on arming Detroit’s police officers with evidence-based crime reduction strategies, rather than its civilians with firearms.

PhotoAP Photo/The Grand Rapids Press, Rex Larsen

Filed under: Crime and Justice, Crime and justice statistics, Detroit, Forensic science, Justice Policy Center, Policing and crime prevention, Victims of crime |Tags: , , , , ,
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Social impact bonds: Solving government problems in four (not so) easy steps

Author: John Roman

| Posted: July 18th, 2014




At the cutting edge of new social innovation financing are social impact bonds (SIBs), a potentially transformative idea. SIB transactions merge traditional public/private partnerships and performance based contracting. Private investors invest in demonstrated social programs, with a promise from government to repay that investment, plus a profit, if predetermined performance targets are met.

The deals transfer risk from the government to the private sector and generate new capital to invest in evidence-based interventions that would otherwise go unfunded.

But on their current path, they are unlikely to fully achieve their promise. Today's deals are bespoke, complex, and have large transactional costs. They also replicate current mistakes in how government purchases services, rather than reforming that process.

Today's deals are mainly efforts to fund well-intentioned programs that are appealing to all parties to the transaction: the government, investors, and social service providers. But in order to satisfy the interests of all parties whose incentives are not aligned, rather than creating real reform, they end up funding the lowest common denominator— something that sounds good, is low risk, but does not solve big problems.

There is a better way to use these transactions to create broader and deeper systems reform, using the SIB development process as the mechanism for reform.

The deals funded by social innovation financing should be the product of a real, intensive strategic planning process, rather than a one-off response to a particular opportunity.

Step one should be an effort to understand what drives the most frustrating costs to government: individuals, families, and places that cycle endlessly through our systems.

Who are these “frequent flyers” who continually touch many systems and generate disproportionately high expenses for taxpayers? Examples include:

  • Kids involved in juvenile justice, child welfare, and special education.
  • Adults who are chronically homeless, mentally ill, and returning from prison.
  • City blocks that the police, fire, and public works spend all their time patrolling.

Step two is to determine why government is ineffective in treating these frequent flyers. The answer is deceptively simple: government knows what it spends, but not what it buys. That is, we know what is in the budget, but in today’s system, we don’t know what outcomes that spending produces. The current procurement process creates no incentives to prioritize outcomes over outputs. A SIB requires that the outcomes are explicit.

Step three is to determine if there are evidence-based interventions that would alleviate the problem. It’s important to remember that not every significant problem has an evidence-based solution. Today, research evidence is generally constrained to a single problem, such as the effectiveness of drug treatment. There is much less evidence around broad social phenomena, like increasing high school completion. Care is thus warranted in prioritizing interventions for SIB funding.

For the final step, a clear-eyed decision must be made about whether SIBs are the right financing mechanism. It should be noted that SIBs are not the answer to every undercapitalized intervention. For example, some frequent flyer populations are so small that a reasonable comparison group cannot be found, and thus it is impossible to determine if outcome targets were met.

The social innovation field is currently in an evolutionary stage, with a focus on building a SIB-ready sector, which simply means educating and experimenting across all parties involved in these transactions.

In order to get to a stage where these innovations are scaled and serve high proportions of targeted populations, a much more strategic approach is required.

And that process is worth doing, even if no SIB is ever financed. The simple process of government articulating what its problems are, what its goals are, and what the potential solutions could be would be a tremendously positive reform in its own right.

Photo: Steve Pepple /

Filed under: Adolescents and Youth, Children, Children's health and development, Corrections, reentry, and community supervision, Courts and sentencing, Crime and Justice, Crime and justice statistics, Delinquency and crime, Economic well-being, Families, Neighborhoods, Cities, and Metros, Nonprofits and Philanthropy, Social impact |Tags: , , , ,
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Why don’t governments implement evidence-based best practices?

Author: John Roman

| Posted: June 19th, 2014

In 1975, Robert Martinson famously wrote that “nothing works” in treating convicted criminals and thus he concluded that rehabilitation in any form was not cost-effective. As discouraging as the criminal justice research was at the time, it was no more pessimistic than education, or public health, or child welfare research.

Today, however, we have mountains of evidence about effective programs. There is rigorous, transparent, objective evidence about what works in schools, what works to prevent violence, how we can help high-risk adolescents get on a better life path, and how to curb criminal offending in general. There are resources that can help guide governments find best practices in almost any sector, from child welfare to health care.

We don’t have a solution to every problem, but there are evidence-based solutions to many problems. But these programs focus on very narrow populations. If a government is looking to reduce drug use within the criminal justice system, we can provide precise estimates of the likelihood that community-based treatment will reduce new offending.

sibs_blogBut what if government wants to reduce all types of criminal reoffending? Drug treatment alone is not enough to accomplish that objective. You also have to improve work skills, deal with mental illness, chronic homelessness, anger management, and more. There is no silver bullet for recidivism that can be summarized in a nice figure like the one above.

A few months ago, I was asked by a local government to help them think through what kind of social services they might finance through a new financing mechanism called social impact bonds (SIBs). SIBs are used to fund evidence-based programs, shifting the risk of new investment from the government to the private or philanthropic sector. The result could be an infusion of new money to fund programs demonstrated to work.

The local government’s particular question: How do we increase high school completion in our city by 20 percent?

Great question.

The problem is that what we do in the social sciences is ask very particular questions about the effectiveness of very narrow programs. If the goal is to reduce new offenses from highly at-risk youth, research provides an answer. If the goal is to increase high school completion among all youth, that is much more difficult to answer.

Florida Redirection is a cost-effective intervention for the highest-risk adolescents, a group that is a tiny (but expensive) fragment of high school dropouts. Reducing the high-risk adolescent dropout rate helps overall high school completion, but only somewhat. If you want to reduce overall high school dropout rates, you have to do lots of things. You have to have effective mentoring. You have to improve math literacy. You have to do out-of-the-the box things, like reduce asthma, which is a leading cause of truancy.

At the moment, we have no idea how to do these things in combination. Just like drug therapy for an illness, two really good medications could complement each other—or have adverse consequences. But that’s not how we study social service programs today.

In the United Kingdom, though, they are taking this issue head on. There, governments are testing 10 SIBs to improve the life chances of NEET youth (NEET being Not in Education, not Employed, not in a Training program), who often become huge drains on social resources as they age.

Each SIB tries a different combination of remedies for the NEET youth. And ultimately, that’s the way we will figure out the solution to these big policy problems.

The point is this: We don’t have solutions that cross programs and sectors yet. But we can if we use SIBs and other social innovations as a way to experiment, to test ideas about how evidence-based programs can work together.

Until then, research will have the wrong answers for policymakers’ questions, and policymakers will not pursue the evidence-based answers researchers can provide.

Filed under: Crime and Justice, Economic Growth and Productivity, National (US), Tracking the economy |Tags:

How government can (finally) start paying for success

Author: John Roman and Kelly Walsh

| Posted: June 11th, 2014

Government doesn’t always work as well as it should, but there are solutions. Today we released new research on the five steps to implementing a pay for success (PFS) project. This is a new concept that can break through traditional barriers to government efficiency to help deliver social programs that produce a public good, government savings, and private profit.

Injecting private capital into the public sector addresses the problem of widespread underfunding of public sector interventions and innovations. PFS, social impact bonds (SIBs), and scaled finance are all similar models that share a core concept: using private capital to buy outcomes, while promising a profit if the program is successful.

Today, government pays for programs regardless of whether they work, and bears all of the risk of that investment. PFS transfers risk from the government to the private sector– philanthropy, venture capital, or commercial banks. In a PFS deal, government only pays if the program achieves predetermined outcomes.

PFS is a special solution for special problems. This is not a tool for pet projects. It’s best suited for programs with a track record of actual success and programs that serve people who use large amounts of public resources and touch multiple systems, like family-based therapies that are designed to work with the most at-risk adolescents and which have the strongest evidence-base.

Here’s how it works. Each deal requires a collaborative effort: private investors, such as commercial banks, high-net-worth investors, and philanthropists, supply capital; nonprofit service providers supply evidence-based programs; a “knowledge intermediary” interprets the evidence for government and investors; an independent researcher evaluates program outcomes; and the government agrees to repay the investor, plus a profit if the program meets its objectives. If the program does not achieve performance goals, the investors lose all or some of their investment and any potential return.

Governments begin the process by contracting with a knowledge intermediary that manages the process and identifies costly, recurrent social problems and the evidence-based programs to solve them. A financial intermediary negotiates with investors and the government, and the intermediaries ensure that service delivery adheres to an evidence-based model.

The evidence is the key to these deals. If the PFS-funded program has a limited evidence base, the risk of failure may kill the deal before it starts. Investors won’t invest if the likelihood of success is uncertain, and governments won’t commit to paying a profit on programs that aren’t grounded in evidence.

PFS is potentially transformative. It funds solutions to problems that are too big for current funding mechanisms, and shifts risk from the government to the private sector, allowing government to innovate in ways it cannot today. Most importantly, a PFS deal demands data. In order to entice investors, the transaction requires that data is acquired and shared, that target performance metrics are realistic (for investors) and aspirational (for government), and that all costs and benefits are specified. In order for the deal to be properly priced, prior research must be carefully analyzed to provide transparency to all parties, and that data and knowledge must be shared across sectors. No other public financing mechanism places these requirements on government, which is why government is so inefficient today.

PFS is being tested. The challenge for the first generation of PFS and SIBs has been to prove the concept and to demonstrate that a PFS transaction can work. The challenge for the next generation is to jump from funding a single program to funding a portfolio of evidence-based programs. Just as there is no one cause of our most pressing social needs, there is no one solution. The PFS deals and SIBs of the future should support a multifaceted solution to these complex and expensive problems.

Stopping problems before they start sounds like common sense, but efforts to fund preventative programs are stymied by the nine barriers outlined in yesterday’s post. PFS financing may break those barriers and offer a new route to positive social change.

Filed under: Adolescents and Youth, Aging, Courts and sentencing, Crime and Justice, Finance, Performance Management and Measurement |Tags: , , , , ,

Nine reasons why government doesn’t work

Author: John Roman

| Posted: June 10th, 2014




State, county, and municipal governments are mainly in the business of buying services for their constituents, paying providers to tackle a broad spectrum of social problems: health, education, employment, and justice, among others. But these governments face significant barriers to reducing costs and delivering high-quality services.


  1. Know what they spend, but not what they buy. Governments keep track of their spending, but have few, if any, quality controls to monitor what they’re really buying. Governments have limited knowledge of what services are actually being provided and of the quality of those services.
  2. Prefer small, short-term benefits to larger long-term benefits. Rather than developing and implementing long-term solutions, governments overwhelmingly focus on fixing short-term problems. The emphasis is placed on fixing preventable problems, rather than preventing those problems in the first place. For instance, instead of funding obesity prevention efforts, we pay enormous sums to remediate diabetes. Why? Because the people in power won’t be around when savings from prevention occur.
  1. Apply well-intentioned, intuitive programs with no evidence-base. The research literature is littered with evaluations of programs that sound promising, but don’t work. Take D.A.R.E., for instance. Dozens of studies have shown that the program may be counterproductive, and may actually increase youth drug experimentation by exposing and demystifying drugs for kids who have not yet encountered them.
  2. Are underfunded to the point that effective programs are not scalable. For more than two decades, research has shown that drug-involved offenders receiving drug treatment in the community go on to commit significantly fewer crimes than drug-involved offenders who are incarcerated. Yet recent studies show that less than four percent of drug-involved offenders receive court-monitored treatment. The problem? Drug treatment is more expensive than criminal case processing and the resources to expand simply aren’t there.
  3. Are risk-averse. Governments rarely fund programs that have excellent average effects, but occasional unintended consequences. While drug courts overall lead to less crime, it is inevitable that some drug-involved offenders treated in the community will commit crimes that incarceration would have prevented. While the overall effect is more public safety, the fear of the less-dangerous side effects, like an occasional preventable crime, almost always wins out.
  4. Aren’t designed for innovation. Not only are there substantial cultural barriers to new ideas in government, but the entire procurement and purchasing process makes innovation almost impossible. Nonprofits and commercial vendors cannot bring good ideas to government; government must solicit innovation (and therefore must come up with the innovative ideas for potential service providers to respond to). This reduces conflicts of interests and under-the-table deals, but stifles innovation.
  5. Have a “wrong-pockets” problem. Government budgets are split into department budgets, and split again into agency budgets. So if one agency or department has a winning idea that reduces overall costs to government, that idea will only go forward if that agency is the one that keeps the savings. If those who benefit from savings from successful evidence-based programs do not include the agency covering the bill, that agency or department is unlikely to pursue the idea.
  6. Don’t share data and knowledge. Not only are budgets rigidly separated, but knowledge and data are as well. Each department tends to be isolated from the rest of government, particularly with respect to information sharing and knowledge transfer. For most governments, data systems not only can’t communicate, but are often prohibited from doing so. If a child is in special education and involved in the juvenile justice system and the child welfare system, most places don’t allow those agencies to share case information, much less encourage them to do so. Thus, the response is inefficient—and the conflicting solutions can make problems worse.
  7. Don’t communicate across borders. If the issues with communication and cost-sharing within governments are serious, the issues with sharing across governments are much more severe. Problems cross borders. Homelessness, gang disputes, pollution, poverty, etc. are not confined to particular geographies and the solutions shouldn’t be, either. But intergovernmental cooperation is often almost impossible.

The result is an inefficient system that at best can be made more efficient, and at worst can do more harm than good.

There is a solution, however—one that addresses all of these problems. I will discuss that tomorrow.

City Hall image from Shutterstock. Follow John on Twitter.

Filed under: Children, Crime and Justice, Economic Growth and Productivity, Geographies, Health and Health Policy, Local, Metro |Tags: , , , , ,

Dear academics: I love Twitter and you should, too. Here’s how you can.

Author: John Roman

| Posted: February 28th, 2014




I wrote most of this post more than a month ago. It sat in my outbox for weeks for the same reason that most academics are reluctant to be on Twitter—I was worried that if I posted it, it would diminish my scholarship. After all, if I am writing about something as seemingly frivolous as Twitter, it must mean that I am not a serious person.

But ultimately, I decided to post it, mainly motivated by Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times article condemning scholars for cloistering themselves in the shroud of academia, and in the process, making themselves irrelevant in the public discourse. As unpopular as it may be among my colleagues, I happen to believe Kristof’s thesis is generally correct. Pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake is wonderful, but irresponsible for anyone with a public policy orientation.

But rather than fighting that battle, I thought I would do something more constructive. So, I’m sharing my guiding principles for scholars using Twitter to talk about their work.

One way to think about Twitter is to work through the mechanics of tweeting and following and gaining an audience. But maybe a better way to approach Twitter is to think about how you create your Twitter gestalt, your personal narrative. I propose starting there. In no particular order, here are my 19 Twitter commandments (19 because prime numbers are awesome). This is my script—yours will be different.

1. Put the social in social network. Interact as much as you can.

2. Don't be scared. You can delete a tweet. And even though a mistake will be archived forever, seriously, no one cares. Just behave the way you would in a business meeting and you'll be fine.

3. Writing a tweet is about writing a headline. Experiment to figure out how to write headlines that resonate with others.

4. Follow people who say interesting things that you will want to comment on or retweet, particularly folks in the business (that includes reporters, policymakers, and other compelling tweeters, not just researchers/academics).

5. Stick to the script. My script is: be myself— serious researcher and archivist of current events with enough humor to be human. However I behave at work, that’s how I behave on Twitter.

6. No politics. Ever.

7. No personal business. Ever. (Most of my communications colleagues disagreed with this point, but as I said, this is my script.)

8. Whenever reasonable, link to your written work. But only when it's reasonable.

9. Promote your colleagues. It's really hard to self-promote in a human way, so let's help each other.

10. Be human. There are lots of hilarious parodies of academics on twitter. Don’t be one.

11. If you have the *slightest* doubt about a tweet, don't tweet (but know that your doubts will wane as you get more comfortable with the medium).

12. Don't respond to tweets by big national figures. It's like publicly shouting at your TV.

13. Be gracious. Never punch down. You have status (whether you believe it or not).

14. Be gracious. Promote the work of people outside your organization.

15. Be gracious. Check your @connect tab to see who is connecting with you and respond.

16. Be gracious. If you find a story on Twitter and re-write the headline, give the original author a “hat tip” (H/T @JohnKRoman).

17. Be well-rounded, and tweet about stuff you don't study.

18. Never, ever go on Klout or Kred or any of the others to see your ”score.” It will lead you to engage in social networking practices that will violate every principle above.

19. If you feel the need to snark (and the pull of the snark on Twitter is strong, my friend) create another account (they're free, you know).

Enjoy Twitter. It's a wonderful, enriching, democratizing platform.

Follow John Roman (@JohnKRoman) on Twitter. Illustration by Daniel Wolfe, Urban Institute

Filed under: Other |Tags: , , , , ,

It's time to separate race and US firearm policy

Author: John Roman

| Posted: February 18th, 2014



Cory Strolla, Michael Dunn

It’s time to separate race and US firearms policy.

Racial disparities exist throughout the American judicial system. As I’ve written before, African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be stopped and frisked, to have their car searched at a traffic stop, to be arrested and convicted on a drug offense (even though they are less likely to consume illegal drugs—see Figure 18), and to receive the death penalty.

But it wasn’t until the shooting of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman’s subsequent trial that another huge racial disparity became evident. African Americans who kill a white victim are ten times less likely to be deemed justified in killing than whites who kill a black victim. The recent trial of Michael Dunn, who was charged with the murder of Jordan Davis, pushed the issue back in the spotlight.

That disparity is not proof that there is racial animus in criminal justice system case processing. But potential sources of any disparity need to be examined empirically, and the magnitude of this disparity is so large that it warrants particular attention.

It’s pure speculation on my part, but I believe that most Americans would be appalled by this apparent injustice and seek remedies if the issue was not so clouded by disputes around the Second Amendment. Those who favor gun rights want to see gun ownership protected, which might make them more open to a narrative where the victims of these crimes deserved their fate. Those who favor gun control might be more open to a narrative where the dead are victims only.

But if we were to separate the Second Amendment issues from the racial disparity question, we would ask a different set of questions. We would ask what differentiates homicides with a black shooter and a white victim from those with a white shooter and black victim.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) requires local law enforcement to submit data on homicides, which are available to the public through the Supplementary Homicide Reports. These data describe each event, whether the victim and offender knew each other, what kind of weapon was used, whether either was law enforcement, and whether the homicide was ruled to be justified.

But what’s lacking in these data is the context of the killing. We know that homicides with a black perpetrator and a white victim are more likely to be robberies or burglaries that go sideways and end up in death—we just don’t know how often this happens. Are robberies gone bad 10 times more likely with a black assailant? We don’t know. But we need to find out to understand this disparity.

The flip side is that we also do not know much about white-on-black killings. We know that between 2005 and 2009, there were about 80,000 homicides in the United States. Since we don’t know who the killer was in about 40 percent of murders, we only know all the facts of the case in a little less than 50,000 homicides.

But, out of just under 50,000 homicides, an older white man killed a younger black man with a gun when they were strangers and neither was law enforcement only 23 times. Dunn and Zimmerman thus participated in extremely rare events. Neither was convicted, which was the outcome of nine of the 23 cases with that fact pattern (39 percent). By contrast, when a black American kills a white American, it is ruled to be justified about 1 percent of the time.

This issue deserves much greater examination, and it would be relatively easy to study. What’s missing from the FBI data is the context of the crime—in particular, whether it occurred on a street or in a home. If there is less than a tenfold difference in where these crimes occur, that suggests the disparity is unwarranted.

The problem is, we are having two debates simultaneously. We are debating the meaning of the Second Amendment at the same time we are grappling with racial disparities in the most serious of crimes.

If we can divorce race and firearms, we can talk about racial disparities in America and figure out if we need to create a more just system.

And then we can talk about the Second Amendment.

Assistant State Attorney Erin Wolfson, left, points at the defendant Michael Dunn, far right, as he speaks to his attorney, Cory Strolla, second from right, during the state's closing arguments in Dunn's trial, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, in Jacksonville, Fla. Dunn is charged with fatally shooting 17-year-old Jordan Davis after an argument over loud music outside a Jacksonville convenient store in 2012. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Mack, Pool)

Filed under: Crime and Justice, Crime and justice statistics, Racial and ethnic disparities |Tags: , , , , , , , ,
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Justin Bieber is Exhibit A for a third criminal justice system

Author: Zach McDade and John Roman

| Posted: January 24th, 2014




Nineteen-year-old megastar Justin Bieber dominated social media and the news this week following his arrest for allegedly street racing a yellow Lamborghini in Miami while drunk and high.

Brazen and unnecessary though his escapade undoubtedly was, there’s a good argument that he should not be processed as an adult under the law. In fact, Bieber might be just the flashy example we need of a third path in the criminal justice system.

Back up a bit: why are we so attached to the idea that 18 is a magical barrier between childhood and adulthood? Much research documents that people’s brains – particularly the parts dedicated to reasoning and judgment – don’t finish developing until the mid-twenties. Emotional and psychological maturity follow at about the same pace.

Maybe all of that means that we actually need a three-tiered criminal justice system, one that treats kids and adults in different ways, while also making room for that important middle ground: young adults in their late teens and early twenties.

Consider this: in Florida, because Bieber is 19, he will be processed in the adult criminal justice system. But, had he already been in the custody of the juvenile justice system for a delinquency case, he would be eligible to remain there until he was 21.

That may be a better approach, with mounting evidence that putting juveniles in adult facilities harms their futures. It results in limitations on housing and employment after release, and limits with whom they can associate. What’s more, treating juveniles as adults tends to increase the number of crimes they commit as adults.

Instead, we all stand to gain from a third system geared toward young adults for whom a therapeutic rather than punitive response is likely to be more beneficial to everyone. Florida law already recognizes that someone like Bieber is somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. Successfully intervening with Bieber, already immeasurably influential, could positively affect how we think about young people and crime to the benefit of thousands of others.

So, what would that look like?

Juvenile justice systems were intended to act in loco parentis (in the place of a parent). They are therapeutic in orientation, and the best systems focus on family-based therapies, where parents, siblings, and friends are all incorporated into a home-based process where delinquents learn to make better, more pro-social decisions.

Historically, adult criminal justice systems also had a therapeutic philosophy, but therapy fell out of favor in the 1970's. Today, by and large, the criminal justice system is about punishment, although more rehabilitative approaches are present in recent state reform efforts.

But over the last two decades, some traditional juvenile-oriented practices have crept back into the adult system. In particular, problem-solving courts create a long-term relationship between judge and offender, who engage in an ongoing discussion about the offender’s behavior, their success in therapy, and their choices. That is the model for the Young Adult System.

And that model would save society money, prevent crimes, and give young adults like Bieber a chance to break the cycle of crime and delinquency.

Follow Zach McDade (@zmcdade) and John Roman (@JohnKRoman) on Twitter.

Filed under: Adolescents and Youth, Delinquency and crime, Juvenile delinquency and youth gangs |Tags: , , , ,