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How Do We Measure the Success of the Criminal Justice System?

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One of the most remarkable things about Eric Holder's speech to the ABA was his statement that the criminal justice system in this country is "ineffective and unsustainable." Many times before the speech, he and other liberals have claimed the system is "broken." That of course is a metaphorical word: What, specifically, does it mean to say the system is "broken," and more generally, how should we measure its success or failure?

These are particularly acute questions for at least two reasons.  First, it was astonishing that the Attorney General would fret that the criminal justice system is "ineffective" at the very time we have achieved a 50% reduction in crime from the levels of a generation ago. Second and more generally, the AG's remarks starkly remind us that what we use as the measure of success will strongly influence, if not control, the kind of changes we think the system needs.

My friendly adversary, Prof. Doug Berman of Ohio State, and I had an exchange that illuminates this question.  
Doug started out by saying, among many other things, that Mr. Holder made a "profound claim that our 'criminal justice system ... is in too many respects broken.'"  I responded that characterizing the AG's remark as "profound" was nonsensical:

First, this has been a standard-issue, off-the-word-processor talking point for years among the defense bar and other pro-inmate groups.

Second and more importantly, it's embarrassingly and flagrantly false. By any sane standard, the best measure of the performance of the criminal justice system is how much crime we're getting. [And] we're getting less than since before [Prof. Berman] was born. This is a failure?

Doug answered:

You are probably right, Bill, that I may have been a bit to quick with the adjective "profound." I probably should have used "significant" or "notable"...

On a broader point, do you think crime rates are the very best metric for whether a criminal justice system is broken? If so, are you focused just on violent/serious crime rates or all crime rates? If so, among violent/serious crime rates, is it primarily homicide and rape that is your chief concern? If so, one could still on this metric assert our system is broken relative to most European and East Asian nations.

And, of course, Holder was not referencing the US crime control system, but rather the US criminal justice system. As you know, lots of folks (including Holder it seems) think the "justice" part of that system matters a lot, too, when assessing whether it is working. 

I responded, line-by-line:

On a broader point, do you think crime rates are the very best metric for whether a criminal justice system is broken?

They are by far the single best measure, yes. If you asked the man in the street how he thought the criminal justice system was doing, probably the most frequent answer would be, "We've got too darn much crime." The second most frequent answer would be, "Are we getting less crime now or not?"

If so, are you focused just on violent/serious crime rates or all crime rates?

For myself, serious crime. Holder's references to "violent crime" as the only thing that really counts were amazingly disingenuous. Someone who's been swindled out of his life savings has suffered no violence, but has been massively harmed. So is the high school kid who non-violently bought some crystal meth. So is the 13 year-old who happily, in exchange for a pretty new dress, did porn shots for some pervert.

Holder's sneaky implication that non-violent crime = non-harmful crime is flat-out false, as he certainly knows.

If so, among violent/serious crime rates, is it primarily homicide and rape that is your chief concern?

Sure. They are generally considered the worst offenses. But the point I made in the preceding paragraph still holds.

If so, one could still on this metric assert our system is broken relative to most European and East Asian nations.

And one could "assert" that there are alien abductions. Citizens of the United States...have approximately zero interest in what the crime rate is in Brussels. What interests them is whether, where they live, what's the crime level, and is it going up or down.

I don't think any of this is rocket science.

And, of course, Holder was not referencing the US crime control system, but rather the US criminal justice system.

I kind of thought the two were intimately related.

As you know, lots of folks (including Holder it seems) think the 'justice' part of that system matters a lot, too, when assessing whether it is working.

And I agree.

But what does justice consist of? Many things, of course. One is convicting the guilty and freeing the innocent, which our criminal justice system does decently well, [very likely] better than at any point in our history.

Another is protecting our citizens from crime (unless one does not consider police work to be part of the criminal justice system, a truncation no normal person would think of). At this task, we are doing better than we have since I was in grade school.

Overall, the AG left the stark impression that our criminal justice system is a disaster. But when that system is making more reliable distinctions between the guilty and the innocent than ever, and protecting our people better than it has in two generations, that impression is misleading to the point of being dishonest.

It's indicative of nothing very good that the Attorney General of the United States measures the success of the criminal justice system as it's measured by the tiny minority of the population whom it imprisons, rather than by the huge, law-abiding majority who at one time would have liked to think that the AG was looking out for them.



3 Comments

Those of us concerned about law and order need to countermand the progressive mantra gaining unquestioned currency that equates "non-violent crime with non-harmful crime" as Bill artfully describes the issue. The level of naivete in this country on this issue is confounding. We need more anonymous self-report studies in which criminals reveal the true extent of their past criminality. Past studies have shown that the average criminal commits between 12-144 crimes per year for which he is not arrested. Those stark numbers may help convince the public that incapacitation is a worthy goal of criminal sentencing and is a major element of maintaining public order.

Bill good post - I think this interplays well with Kent's post about the role of victims of crime (and my comment on it, shamelessly promoting my thoughts as always).

Mike --

Great point. The number of times these people don't get caught vastly exceeds the number of times they do.


Matthew --

As we say here in Washington, the less shame, the better.

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