A briefing paper on crime related topics for President-elect Trump, and everyone else.
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. Post Master’s degree-Johns Hopkins University.
Gentlereader: I participated in creating briefing papers for Presidents when I was the Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. They were designed to be quick reads with simple statistical charts to give the President and his team cursory overviews of crime and criminal justice issues.
I will attempt to do the same for President-elect Donald Trump.
Dear President-elect Trump, your briefing paper on crime and criminal justice issues is below:
No Consensus on Crime: The first thing to understand about crime is that there are few (if any) issues that everyone agrees on. Criminal justice topics are mostly ruled by politics and personal philosophies. There is a difference between understanding crime and choosing successful tactics. We can’t even agree if crime if going up in the country (it is). Be skeptical. Demand data. Have your own methodologists to judge the quality of the numbers presented.
You Can “Prove” Anything: Advocates will come to you with data proving that crime is strongly influenced and controlled by (pick the personal philosophy of your choice). They routinely cherry pick numbers supporting their cause. Note that when you take a look at the totality of research, they are routinely wrong.
Society Controls Crime: It’s up to society and communities to police themselves; this is criminology 101. The criminal justice system does not control crime. The system has little influence over anyone who chooses to hit their spouse or do drugs or evade their taxes or purchase stolen goods or any other form of illegality. Societal norms can be successfully molded to condemn and reduce drinking and driving, spouse abuse, drug use (beyond marihuana) and other issues. If the larger society does not buy into self-regulation (i.e., Prohibition) there is little the system can do about it. Create a national commission to prompt a societal consensus on violent crime. Address child abuse and neglect. Create a national advertising campaign encouraging victims to state the impact that crime has on their lives. Support a federal Constitutional amendment expanding victim rights; the states will follow with improved or new amendments of their own.
There Are Few Impartial Sources: Criminologists and advocates by the score will sit before you and feed you bullcrap. Police chiefs with decades of experience will try to guide you, but many have spent years with iffy results. There are hundreds of websites addressing criminal justice issues, but there are a handful providing objective data or opinions. The vast majority claim to be impartial and bipartisan; they are not. Even your Department of Justice websites (particularly those funded externally) will reflect the values of current or past occupants of the White House.
Reasons for Crime: No one can explain to anyone’s complete satisfaction why crime goes up or down. It’s not the economy (crime seems to increase, not decrease, in good markets). I live in the Appalachian Mountains where average household wages are below the national average; there is poverty, drug use and tons of guns, but violent crime is very low. Employment doesn’t have a direct correlation to reduced illegal activities. We simply don’t know why crime goes up or down. Note that many of us believe that mental health issues (and self-medication through drugs) are skyrocketing, probably related to massive child abuse and neglect. See Top Reasons for Crime. The best examination of crime rates over time is available at Crime in America.
Crime is at Record Lows (Maybe): Data from the Department of Justice (crime reported to police via the FBI-National Crime Survey) tell us that there has been an almost continuous decrease in crime for the last twenty years. Some criminologists suggest that we have never lived in safer times. But if you say that, the nation will suggest that you have lost your mind. Crime continues to be an immense concern for Americans; fear of crime is at a 15 year high per Gallup, gun sales are going through the roof. Home security sales are increasing. Crime is a top item in local news coverage. And just to add to the confusion, Gallup states that crime (per their methodology) is at record highs. See Gallup Says Crime and Fear Are Up. You should depend on Department of Justice data; they seem to have better methodologies. But no one disputes Gallup’s fear of crime data.
Policing: Along with guns, this will be the hot topic of your administration and yes, there is no consensus. Some suggest that you are favorably predisposed to quality of life law enforcement commonly known as broken windows or stop and frisk. There are law enforcement experts (especially the New York City Police where crime plummeted) who support this strategy (the current mayor does not). This involves stopping and/or citing/arresting hundreds of thousands of people in high-crime communities. It will bring charges related to race or income. But community-based strategies do not have much of a research base to recommend them. There are two things that we know, the vale of cops and crime control is proven when they are absent, and that crime rose recently in cities where cops stopped being aggressive (effectively absent).
The trick is to balance police assertiveness with community values, which is an almost impossible task to achieve given current police training and personal requirements. We would have to put cops on par with training and compensation of medical personnel, see Reforming Policing.
It would help if you got personally involved in setting a national agenda as to what law enforcement should do. The last two years have been particularly hard on cops, so a little recognition from you would help morale and set a standard of expiations on how officers should conduct themselves. Recommend vigilance, civil aggressiveness, less of a reliance on shooting when justified, and depending on community values for modes of enforcement. Communities should take the lead on crime control with police as their partners.
Get personally involved in police officer deaths or serious injuries, see President’s Office of Peace Officer Service. If we are asking cops to take increased risks, they and their families need to know that the country supports them.
Corrections: Like law enforcement, corrections is a swamp where few exit unscathed. Make sure that every prison inmate and those on parole or probation have access to medical, psychological, substance abuse treatment and preparation for jobs. But there isn’t a strong track record of success with correctional programs; even when successful, rehabilitation efforts do little to reduce recidivism. See Correctional Research.
But we have no alternative to mass incarceration beyond programs and sentencing reform, and states are screaming that their correctional budgets are eating them alive. Make sure that violent and repeat offenders go to prison and fund research as to alternatives to incarceration and treatment programs. Support sentencing reform that lowers time in prison for except for repeat or violent offenders. You will do this not because it’s the most effective strategy, but with the recognition that states simply cannot afford to continue their current rates of incarceration.
Guns: There are over 350 million firearms in the United States per the Washington Post. If you prohibited all firearms, it would take a lifetime for the ban to have any effect. Per the National Crime Survey, the overwhelming number of crimes do not involve firearms. You may want to consider expansion of background checks to gun shows or auctions (you could equip a small army at an auction), but beyond that, you are on shaky ground with many Americans.
Substance Abuse: People will tell you that substance abuse should be treated as a public health problem without having a clue as to what that means, or what it would cost. We currently treat very few people who need it. Expanding treatment to everyone would require massive expenditures and, quite simply, we don’t have the personnel to do it. Substance abuse and mental health issues are co-occurring and very difficult to treat. Implement/expand a national program based on Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous; just note that AA and NA are better at maintenance than treatment. Create a system of prioritizing those who are in desperate need (i.e., mother of five with a heroin habit) and fund treatment in partnership with states. This will reach twenty percent of those who need personal treatment via a group setting. Treat the rest through medication and phone/virtual counseling. The United States will never have the money to provide customized drug and mental health treatment to everyone.
Lastly, it’s time to legalize marijuana. Half of Americans have used pot. It’s time to clear the decks so we can focus on more pressing issues. If we want government out of our lives, why doesn’t this apply to marijuana? See Legalize Pot.
So that’s it Mr. President-elect. What’s provided is a quick overview that many will disagree with. Just understand that anyone who tells you with certainty that their program or philosophy is effective is most likely blowing smoke up your derriere. Be careful, be inclusive and most important, be skeptical.
Crime in America at http://crimeinamerica.net
My book: “Amazon Hot New Release”- “A Must Have Book,” Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization available at Amazon