Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Meta Question For Criminal Justice Research

America spends massive amounts of money on criminal justice — especially on prisons.

It’s big business in a country that incarcerates over two million people and keeps millions more on probation or parole. Nationally, the annual cost to incarceate so many people approaches $70 billion, according to estimates by the Economics of Crime working group at the Bureau of Economic Research.

Of course, America does tend to do things in a big way. I was reminded of this tonight, when listening to Fresh Air. The guest was author Matthew Aid, who said that the number of intelligence analysts working for Uncle Sam has ballooned to 210,000 in the wake of 9/11.

This led me to wonder: If America can afford 210,000 intelligence analysts, what about criminal justice analysts? Is the amount of research that is done to help guide decisions in our sprawling justice system even remotely proportionate to the system’s expense?

The healthcare system has the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and other institutions devoted to research. Their funding is quite ample and their role in developing guidelines for hte delivery of care is significant.

What about criminal justice? It’s true that the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the U.S. Department of the Justice, supports research and issues grants for demonstration projects. There are also various research agencies at the state and sometimes even the local level.

But does our society really invest in enough research to develop an adequate level of knowledge about how the criminal justice system is performing?

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