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Crime Archive

Justice reinvestment: Using data to save dollars

Author: Nancy La Vigne

| Posted: August 1st, 2013




Correctional policy has been slow to adopt data-driven and evidence-based solutions to its various challenges. Perhaps that’s because for years, states assumed that more incarceration equaled more public safety—an idea that’s popular among some politicians and the public, but generally not supported by research.

The fiscal crisis of the early 2000s, combined with plummeting crime rates, led some state leaders to question whether there weren’t more cost-effective, research-supported means of creating safer communities. Enter “justice reinvestment”: A model by which states use data to identify drivers of prison populations and costs, along with analyses of what current policies are effective and ineffective, to guide reform efforts.

The Urban Institute just released a new research brief that chronicles the early activities and results of 17 states engaged in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a program of the Bureau of Justice Assistance in partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts. The findings highlight how states found ample room for improvement to the status quo.

  • Several states learned that they were housing low-level, non-violent offenders who could be safely supervised in the community for a lot less money.
  • They also learned that existing parole and probation resources were not sufficient to cover all those at greatest risk of recidivism.
  • Many states found that their growing prison populations were generated by prisoners who failed conditions of probation and parole, but had not committed any new offenses.
  • Others learned that their scarce programming resources were not targeted to those who posed the greatest risk to public safety.
  • And many of the current programs states were funding had no evidence of effectiveness.

These and other drivers of prison populations and costs pointed to a wide array of potential policy changes. In response, states passed legislation addressing both front-end (reduced sentences or probation for low-level nonviolent felons) and back-end (increased earned time credits for program participation) changes to policy and practice.

  • Oregon reduced sentence lengths for certain low-level property and drug possession offenses.
  • Louisiana allowed for earlier parole eligibility for non-violent non-sex offending prisoners.
  • Georgia mandated community treatment for drug offenders.
  • Delaware allowed for greater “good time” credits for prisoners who participate in much-needed programming.

Collectively, the 17 states that have adopted the JRI model are projected to save $3.3 billion over 10 years by implementing these changes. They plan to reinvest a share of these savings into high-performing public safety strategies.

While these projections are impressive, it’s important to remember that we’re still early in the assessment process, and how much money is actually saved and reinvested remains to be seen. Much depends on whether the policies are implemented as intended, whether states make good on their reinvestment plans, and whether state legislatures can refrain from passing new, more punitive laws that negate the strategic and data-driven policies that hold so much promise for long-term reform.

Georgia state capitol building from Shutterstock

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Race, homicide, and Stand Your Ground

Author: John Roman

| Posted: July 26th, 2013



Over the last year, I have written several articles about racial disparities in findings that a homicide was justified. Recently, two pieces in particular have captured some attention, one published by PBS Frontline, and one on this blog. Many readers have expressed interest in learning more about the methods I used to arrive at the conclusion that the odds a black-on-white shooting is ruled justifiable is less than 10 percent of the odds that a white-on-black shooting is ruled to be justified.

Today, I have a full report that documents the methods used in previous posts and that includes all the study results. For the skeptics, you can download the data yourself here, and if you email the public affairs team, we will send you the SAS code I used to perform the analysis.

There are two items to note in the new analysis. First, the analysis includes an additional year of data (2010) that was not available at the time the PBS Frontline piece was written. That article reports my finding that the odds a white-on-black homicide was ruled to be justified were 254 percent higher than white-on-white homicides. The new analysis finds the odds are 281 percent higher. The difference, I believe, is due to a trend in justifiable homicide findings. A regression analysis of FBI Supplementary Homicide Reports from 2005 to 2010 finds that the odds a homicide is ruled to be justified have increased about 10 percent a year, which validates the change in the new data.

Finally, one bit of detail from the analysis of the FBI data that is important to understand the findings: In the FBI data, a homicide is said to be justified if it is coded as the “killing of a felon by a private citizen”; that is, in order for a law enforcement finding of self-defense, it must be the case that the perpetrator feared for his or her life. If you give anyone a reason to fear for their life, you are committing a felony.

Photo by Tim Meko, Urban Institute

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Want to catch a lot of dangerous criminals cheaply? Process DNA evidence from burglary scenes

Author: John Roman and Helen Ho

| Posted: July 12th, 2013



In my last blog post, I wrote about how reminding prisoners on their way out of prison that their DNA has been collected and stored in a database can reduce their future offending. However, the way that it’s actually been playing out in practice won’t deter people from committing crimes.

Simply informing convicted offenders that you have their DNA is insufficient to change their behavior. In order for their behavior to change, the convicted offender must be convinced that the collection and retention of their DNA evidence will increase (substantially) the likelihood that they will be caught for offending in the future.

And there’s the rub. While the United States is increasingly relying on DNA evidence to convict offenders who would otherwise go free, it doesn’t happen very often.

And the reason why it doesn’t happen very often is that we are using DNA databases in an extremely inefficient way. We spend way too much money using DNA to aid investigations it mainly can’t help, and way too little solving crimes whose offenders can cause bigger social harms.

Prosecutors are especially motivated to use DNA in murder cases because of the crime’s seriousness. This is a very ineffective use of DNA testing because there is often no transfer of biological material from the assailant to the victim. A typical murder in the U.S. involves a firearm (about two-thirds of the time), and typically there is no physical interaction between the victim and the assailant. Other biological evidence left behind—DNA from a cigarette butt, hair in a hat—can link a person to a place, but doesn’t say anything about when they were at that place. None of this is to say DNA can never aid a homicide investigation, only that it is often a long shot.

DNA is much more efficacious in a burglary investigation—if investigators find your cigarette butt in a house right after it’s been burgled, you’re sunk. And our research at the Urban Institute finds that DNA test to be relatively inexpensive—as little as $3,500 to catch a felon.

And yet, we find that DNA evidence is about 10,000 times more likely to be processed from a homicide scene than from a residential burglary. Unfortunately, DNA testing resources are limited, and the focus on homicide crowds out testing DNA in burglary investigations.

While homicides cause many times more harm to society than burglary, it does not justify the lack of DNA processing of evidence from a burglary. For the disparity to be justified, the future harms prevented from solving a homicide would have to be 10,000 times greater than from solving a burglary.

They aren’t. They are in fact about the same. It turns out that burglary offenders nabbed by DNA average about three prior felony convictions, often for violent crimes. And they aren’t specialists—they rape, rob, and kill too. They are dangerous offenders who should be a much bigger priority for law enforcement and prosecutors.

And the link back to “we’ve got your DNA”? We’d nab more bad guys if we tested DNA from burglaries rather than murders, making the threat from DNA collection and retention much more real— and thus we would deter more future offending.

DNA illustration from Shutterstock.

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How states can reduce crime, for free

Author: John Roman

| Posted: July 9th, 2013



In Nudge, authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein discuss how the government can help citizens make better decisions by acting as “choice architects” who have “the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.” Throughout the social sciences, academics are thinking about how this simple idea can be used to frame choices for the people who receive public services. Policymakers are reframing how they see the consumers of their services; instead of being viewed as passive recipients of government programs, these individuals – whether they are prisoners, drug addicts, or chronically homeless - are increasingly considered clients within the system, for whom choices can thoughtfully be framed.

One useful application of this concept is to consider how prisoners’ decision-making processes can be shaped to reduce crime. This can potentially be done by leveraging the power of one of the most effective investigative tools of the day: DNA evidence. Over the last decade, most states have expanded their DNA collection programs to include most convicted offenders, as well as some arrestees, in their databases. Evidence from crime scenes can then be matched against these databases to identify and apprehend otherwise unknown suspects. Our research at the Urban Institute has found that the collection and processing of DNA evidence can increase the probability of identifying an unknown suspect tenfold. Clearly, the effectiveness of criminal investigations can be greatly enhanced through the use of this technology.

In addition to apprehending suspects, this technology may have an additional benefit of deterring offenders from committing future crimes. The logic of deterrence is straightforward: A rational actor will commit a crime only if he or she perceives that the benefits of doing so exceed the costs. If people leaving prisons are rational actors, the knowledge that their DNA has been collected and retained for future investigations should, in theory, cause them to commit fewer crimes by increasing their perceived risk of engaging in criminal activity.

In practice, however, the business of shaping offenders’ behavior is much more complicated. Much debate exists among criminologists, sociologists, and economists about the extent to which criminal offenders truly are rational actors. Some argue that people who commit crimes have poor decision-making skills and place a low value on their future. A recent study conducted by Avi Bhati investigated the deterrent effects of DNA evidence by testing whether adding a convicted offender to a DNA database changed their subsequent behavior. He found that while adding someone to a database greatly increased the chance that they would be identified during a criminal investigation, it had virtually no effect on their future offending.

Although deterrence theory is not without controversy, many new criminal justice interventions are predicated on the concept that offenders behave as rational actors. Modeled off the Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program, recent interventions are based on the simple idea that if the certainty of sanctions increases, offenders will commit fewer infractions. HOPE puts this principle into practice by drug testing probationers and responding immediately to any positive tests, often with a short stay in jail. By increasing the costs of drug use in this way, HOPE tips the cost-benefit balance away from crime and reduces offending.

The success of HOPE indicates that offenders may, in fact, respond to deterrent tactics when the threat of punishment is certain and closely follows the crime. So why did Bhati find that collecting offenders DNA does not deter? It may be that their DNA was collected too far in the past to affect their post-release offending. The solution is to make the threat of punishment clearer and more immediate. The intervention, then, is simple: Offenders need to be made aware of the effectiveness of DNA evidence in apprehending suspects and reminded that their DNA can be used to aid future criminal investigations. These messages should be delivered frequently and strategically, such as while offenders are transitioning out of prison and at their subsequent parole meetings. By making offenders more aware of the risks of participation in further criminal activity, DNA evidence may be able to become a powerful, low-cost tool to deter future crime as well as apprehend suspects.

Illustration by Tim Meko/The Urban Institute.

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The next big national policy shift, in one chart

Author: John Roman

| Posted: June 26th, 2013



The partisan divide is as deep today as it perhaps has ever been. Even so, as demonstrated by the swift closing of the political gap on gay marriage, the landscape can change rapidly.

The next big sea change seems relatively easy to predict: Large-scale reductions in mass incarceration. Gone are the days when the only voices around sentencing and incarceration were shouting get-tough-on-crime messages. After tripling over two generations, there’s been little growth in prison populations in the last five years. There’s even some evidence of a rollback. The tough-on-crime message has largely been replaced by silence, but calls for change are growing.


Led by Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich, Right on Crime seeks to reduce the number of prisons and prisoners to fight crime, prioritize victims, and protect taxpayers.

Democrats have long argued for prison reform, with the most recent charge being led by former Senator Jim Webb, who charged that mass incarceration does not prevent crime and ravages communities.

And there is near universal agreement among academics that regardless of whether mass incarceration prevents crime, it does not do so in a cost-effective way. In particular, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative seeks to help state and local governments reduce their prison populations and costs.

All the ingredients are there—political, fiscal, and empirical—for a rapid change to much more efficient and effective policies. Perhaps it will take a generation before mass incarceration seems as anachronistic as chain gangs, but that change seems inevitable.

Prison image from Graphic by Tim Meko, Urban Institute.

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Arrestee DNA collection ruled constitutional: What does it mean?

Author: Nicole Levins

| Posted: June 10th, 2013




Last Monday, the Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) upheld a Maryland law that allows the collection of DNA from individuals arrested for serious crimes.

On the same day, the Urban Institute released its own research on the policies, practices, and implications of collecting DNA at arrest. Two of the studies’ authors, Justice Policy Center Senior Fellow Julie Samuels and Research Associate Dwight Pope, discussed their research and some of the implications of the Court’s decision.

What’s the status of arrestee DNA collection in the United States?

Over the past decade, there’s been a large increase in DNA profiles in the National DNA Index System (NDIS). Many are associated with individuals whose DNA was collected at arrest or charging, which is authorized through legislation passed by Congress and more than half the states throughout the country.

Though it’s been argued that the practice is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional for those arrested for serious crimes. Some states may have been waiting to see how the case was decided, so it’s possible that more will adopt arrestee DNA legislation.

In theory, collecting DNA from arrestees effectively expands DNA databases because you’re drawing from a larger population. An underlying assumption is that more DNA profiles in databases will lead to more opportunities for profiles to be linked to evidence from unsolved crimes.

Another assumption is that by collecting DNA sooner in a case—for example, at arrest—crimes may be solved faster.

Who can be subjected to DNA collection?

It depends on the state. Thirteen collect from all felonies, while fourteen limit collection to a subset of felonies, typically involving violence, sexual assault, and property crimes. Seven also collect from individuals arrested or charged with select misdemeanors. One state, Oklahoma, authorizes DNA collection at arrest from “any alien unlawfully present under federal immigration law.”

Federal law authorizes collection from all arrestees and non-US citizens detained by the US government.

What about those who are arrested, but ultimately not charged with, or convicted of, a crime?

In most states that authorize DNA collection from arrestees, individuals who are not charged or convicted may request that their DNA profile be removed from the database. It’s up to them to initiate the process, which usually requires obtaining a court order that is then sent to the laboratory.

Labs in these states have indicated that few removals (or expungements, as they’re officially called) actually occur, effectively resulting in profiles that are stored in the database for an indeterminate amount of time. 

A few laws (like Maryland’s) require the state to automatically remove an arrestee DNA profile from the database if the individual isn’t charged or convicted. Automatic expungement can be resource-intensive for laboratories, as they are generally responsible for tracking case outcomes in these states.

What are some of the challenges to implementation?

The two biggest challenges are costs and time, with most of the burden falling on the state labs, which will need to hire and train new staff, change existing processes, and train collection agencies. Implementation will likely also result in more administrative work, such as verifying sample eligibility, identifying duplicate submissions, and monitoring compliance.

Is arrestee DNA collection actually worth it? Does it result in more convictions?

It’s hard to say. Most states do not reclassify arrestee profiles as convicted offender profiles upon conviction. A match—or hit—linking an arrestee profile to crime scene evidence may occur after the individual has been convicted and would have submitted a sample anyway. At the NDIS level, the FBI does not yet report data on hits associated with arrestee profiles.

Most states that provided data for this study indicated the number of hits associated with arrestee profiles, but they didn’t break down the data further to identify how many were associated with profiles from arrestees who were not subsequently convicted, or how many occurred between arrest and conviction.

Two states were able to determine the number of hits attributed to arrestee profiles that would not have occurred—or would have occurred later—if DNA was only collected upon conviction. In these states, arrestee profiles did increase the number of resulting hits, investigations aided, and successful prosecutions.

DNA image from Shutterstock.

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Stand Your Ground laws and racial bias

Author: John Roman

| Posted: June 5th, 2013

Trayvon Martin’s death was by any measure a tragedy. In the aftermath, a spotlight has shone on what had been a relatively obscure change in law about when a homicide is legally considered to be justified. Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws have been passed in 23 states and, to varying degrees, extend the right to use lethal force in self-defense outside of the home.

Last week, the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights voted to undertake an inquiry to determine whether SYG laws introduce racial bias into decisions about whether a homicide is justified. The American Bar Association National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws is holding a series on public meetings, including one Thursday, June 6 in Philadelphia as part of its inquiry. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the ABA task force).

SYG laws extend the Castle Doctrine—which allows for the use of lethal force in the defense of your home—to public spaces. Some further extend the rights of the shooter by not allowing police to arrest a shooter unless they have probable cause that their claim of self-defense is untrue. These laws, in effect, move determinations of justice from a deliberate process in the courts to a chaotic one at a crime scene. Many are concerned that this will introduce racial bias into the process.

Last year, I analyzed FBI data from Supplemental Homicide Reports (SHR) from 2005 to 2009. Most crime data is reported as aggregate monthly data, but the SHR data describe characteristics of the perpetrator, the victim, and the facts of the case (such as whether a firearm was used) in most homicides. Analyzing these data, I found that SYG laws change how often shootings are ruled to be justified and that they are associated with racial disparities in justifiable homicide rulings.

At the time, SHR data were only available through 2009, which meant that there were little data available after many new SYG laws were enacted. Data from 2010 are now available. Here’s what we learn when we crunch those numbers.

Overall, less than 2 percent of homicides are ruled to have been self-defense. However, in SYG states after SYG enactment, it is closer to three percent, and in non-SYG states, it is close to one percent (that difference is statistically significant).

Are there are racial disparities in justifiable homicide rulings? Out of 53,000 homicides in the database, 23,000 have a white shooter and a white victim. The shooting is ruled to have been justified in a little more than 2 percent of cases. In states with a SYG law (after enactment), the shooting is ruled to be justified in 3.5 percent of cases, compared to less than 2 percent in non-SYG states. In cases where both the victim and shooter are black, the numbers are almost identical, if slightly lower.

When the shooter and victim are of different races, there are substantial differences in the likelihood a shooting is ruled to be justified. When the shooter is black and the victim is white, the shooting is ruled justified in about 1 percent of cases, and is actually slightly lower in non-SYG states. Between 2005 and 2010, there were 1,210 homicides with a black shooter and a white victim—the shooting was ruled to be justified in just 17 of them (about 1 percent).

The story is completely different when there is a white shooter and a black victim. In the same time period, there were 2,069 shootings where the shooter was white and the victim black. The homicide was ruled to be justified in 236 cases (11 percent). In SYG states, almost 17 percent of white-on-black shootings were ruled to be justified.

Finally, I tested whether these racial disparities remained when we controlled for whether the victim and perpetrator were strangers, the state where the incident occurred, the year of the homicide, and whether the shooting occurred in a SYG state. The racial disparities remain large and significant. In fact, the odds that a white-on-black homicide is ruled to have been justified is more than 11 times the odds a black-on-white shooting is ruled justified.

No dataset will ever be sufficient to prove that race alone explains these disparities. But there are disparities in whether homicides are ruled to be self-defense, and race is clearly an important part of the story.

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Three ways drug policy is evolving

Author: Nicole Levins

| Posted: May 24th, 2013




Yesterday afternoon, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, joined Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, Chief Thomas Manger of the Montgomery County Police Department, and The Urban Institute’s Nancy La Vigne for a panel discussion on 21st century drug policy reform. Their conversation revealed big changes in the way we address, treat, and even talk about drug issues in the United States.

Here are three ways drug policy is evolving:

  • The “War on Drugs” is over: One of the biggest shifts in recent years involves the way we frame organized efforts to reduce drug abuse among Americans. “War on Drugs,” a part of the American vernacular since its declaration by President Nixon more than 40 years ago, is no longer an accurate representation.

“[‘War on Drugs’] wasn’t going to define the Obama administration’s approach to the drug problem,” said Kerlikowske. “I could never really remember any of my colleagues around the country ever talking about it as a war on drugs. When you think about the oath of office that we took, to protect people, and to work with them and make sure they felt they had a law enforcement agency that could be trusted…The war analogy is not a particularly good one to use.”

We need more than “simplistic bumper sticker approaches” to fight drug abuse, Kerlikowske added, explaining that the American public is ready for a more substantial dialogue on the problem. It’s a trend that’s gaining traction globally as well—the Organization of American States just released a report  that encourages more comprehensive drug policies.

  • Drug abuse is viewed as a public health issue—not just a criminal justice issue: Early in the program, La Vigne introduced Kerlikowske as the person who “replaced the word ‘war’ with the word ‘treatment.’”

“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” said Kerlikowske. “We have to approach drug policy from a public health standpoint, not just the criminal justice standpoint.”

In this regard, one of the administration’s priorities is equal access to drug treatment. “The Affordable Care Act is one important tool in this area,” said Kerlikowske. “It is revolutionary for drug policy. For the first time, it makes drug treatment for substance abuse disorders a required health benefit.”

Equal access to treatment also applies those in prison. Research (including our own) has shown that those who treat their addictions while incarcerated are less likely to commit additional offenses upon their release.

Drug courts, which stress treatment over punishment, are another important—and research-supported— piece of the puzzle.

  • There’s a new focus on “decriminalization” (but not necessarily legalization): Though no one on the panel expressed favor for blanket legalization, decriminalization received enthusiastic support, especially from Manger, the Montgomery County police chief.

Manger described the challenges faced by school resource officers, who are “taking dope out of lockers every single day.” As Manger put it, "nothing good happens when the only option we have is to charge [these kids] criminally, and see what kind of sanctions we can get from the courts. That’s not the way to go. That’s where decriminalization comes in."

“So many of the cases that we deal with are strictly possession cases,” Manger continued. “They’re cases that involve very minor, if any, other criminal activity, and those are the ones where decriminalization makes sense. Let’s get them the treatment they need.”

As the discussion came to close, all the panelists agreed that the future of drug policy reform looks promising, though not without a few challenges.

“We’ve made great strides, particularly in the last decade, in our thinking about drug policy, criminal justice policy, the reforms that have been enacted. It’s very different than it was at the height of the wars on crime and drugs in the ‘80s and early ‘90s,” said the Sentencing Project’s Mauer. “But I think we’re still at a point where changing politics, changing policy, changing culture is a very difficult thing to do, and we have a long way to go.”

Photo by Simona Combi, Urban Institute

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New Arrestee Data Underscore Need for 21st Century Approach to Drug Policy Reform

Author: Gil Kerlikowske

| Posted: May 23rd, 2013




Today, I spoke at the Urban Institute to call for the expansion of criminal justice reforms aimed at addressing the underlying causes of criminal behavior in light of new data confirming the nexus between drug use and crime. The 2012 Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Annual Report (ADAM II) shows that in five cities/counties, more than half of adult males arrested for crimes ranging from misdemeanors to felonies tested positive for at least one illegal drug. According to ADAM II, positive test results among arrestees ranged from 62 percent in Atlanta to 86 percent in Chicago.

In 2004, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 53 percent each of jail and state inmates and 46 percent of Federal inmates suffered from drug use abuse or dependence – and yet only 7 percent of jail inmates, 15 percent of state inmates, and 17 percent of Federal inmates received treatment.

These data show that reform is needed. A month ago, the Obama Administration released the 2013 National Drug Control Strategy (Strategy), the president’s plan for 21st century drug policy reform based on scientific research about the nature of addiction. This plan reflects our understanding of addiction as chronic brain disease—one that can be prevented, treated, and from which people can recover.

The Strategy also supports a “smart on crime” approach to drug enforcement, protecting communities from domestic and international drug-related crime while diverting non-violent drug offenders into treatment instead of prison. As part of this approach, our plan highlights promising criminal justice reform, like drug courts and smart probation programs that reduce incarceration rates, along with community-based policing programs that break the cycle of drug use, crime, and incarceration while focusing limited enforcement resources on more serious offenses.

Far too often, addiction is at the root of what drives crime in our communities. To stop the revolving door of the criminal justice system in America, we must address not only serious criminal activities, but equally important, underlying substance use disorders. The ADAM II report confirms an urgent need to support policy reform outlined in the Obama Administration’s new drug policy strategy, which emphasizes prevention, treatment, and “smart on crime” policies that break the vicious cycle of drug use, crime, and incarceration in America.

To read the full 2012 Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Annual Report (ADAM II) report, click here.

Photo by Simona Combi, Urban Institute

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