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Examining criminal justice in America

Students, scholars and crimefighters go beyond the daily headlines to examine America’s criminal justice system.

Stories about crime, police brutality and overcrowded prisons constantly flash across our screens, fill the newspapers we read and lead the nightly news. But how does it all add up?

At the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research Policy Forum on April 21, panelists went beyond the headlines to present a deeper look at the nation’s criminal justice system. The analytical insights and sometimes heated discussions ranged from the impact of police use of stun guns to the high price of instant noodles at jail commissaries.

Panelists — including scholars, a police chief, the co-founder of TASER International and a former inmate-turned-PhD student — tackled broad and pressing issues: What changes are afoot within the criminal justice system? Where does technology fit into the fight against crime? And what can police departments do to build public trust?

Stanford PhD candidate Shea Streeter talks to Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones about building trust between cops and communities
Stanford PhD candidate Shea Streeter talks to Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones about building trust between cops and communities

Photo Credit: Steve Castillo

“Every day, you wake up and you see another story about a shooting,” said Sam Baucom, a freshman who attended the forum. “I’m sure the vast majority of law enforcement officers are doing good jobs, but I’m interested in (police) accountability and how technology could be used for developing policy and criminal justice.”

Baucom liked how the forum provided tangible, insider perspectives — whether it was from behind a badge or behind bars — in addition to discussions about theories or data.

A recurring theme emerged from each session: Clearer information and more research will be needed to better inform policy changes at the departmental, local, state and federal levels.

For fellow freshman Sana Gujral, gaining different perspectives from the panelists — and seeing how economic research can translate to real-world situations — helped affirm her impending move to declare economics as her major.

“Now I just don’t know what track I want to take,” she said.

The Policy Forum, titled “Crime, Policing and Incarceration,” was co-sponsored by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, the Stanford Economics Association and Stanford in Government.

You’ll find highlights and opportunities to watch video recordings of the four panels below. Separate interviews with some of the panelists can be viewed on our Facebook page, and more information about our speakers can be found on the events page.

The Stanford Daily also interviewed two of the panelists — Bill Keller of The Marshall Project and Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones — about how students can get more involved in some of the issues.

Is America in the midst of a crime wave?

“Donald Trump is right: Crime is going up,” said Bill Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times.

But it’s hard to tell whether the crime rate in America is on a long upward trajectory, or if it’s just a short spike, said Keller — who is now the editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, a 3-year-old non-profit news organization that focuses on covering the U.S. criminal justice system.

“Whether the one-year uptick is going to continue or what the causes are, we don’t have the data,” Keller said. “There’s a lot of research and reporting that needs to be done.”

Bill Keller, editor of The Marshall Project, talks about crime rates in America.
Bill Keller, editor of The Marshall Project, talks about crime rates in America.

Photo Credit: Steve Castillo

After more than a decade of a steady decline in violent crimes, the rate appears to have risen by more than 5 percent in 2016, according to Bureau of Justice statistics. Property crimes, however, are down slightly by about half a percent.

The vantage point changes, too, if you’re looking at individual cities. From among the nation’s largest cities, Baltimore registered the highest per-capita murder rate in 2015, but saw its rate fall in 2016 while a majority of other cities saw increases — with some, such as Memphis and Chicago, seeing particularly dramatic jumps.

“Crime is local, like politics,” Keller said. “It reinforces the sense, that if you’re in Baltimore, your view of crime and safety in America would be different than if you lived in a safer city.” 

Mark Duggan, the Trione Director of SIEPR, shared the stage with Keller and asked him to discuss The Marshall Project’s analysis of theories for the “Great Crime Decline” since the 1990s — explanations ranging from a prison building boom that led to more lockups to the idea that restricting children’s exposure to lead has meant fewer “damaged children” growing up to be criminals.

But the recent rise in crime could be attributed to a combination of theories as well, Keller said. They include the opioid epidemic, the trend of reducing prison populations, increased gun availability and increased socio-economic inequality. 

Another theory, known as “The Ferguson Effect,” is a reference to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. It follows the notion that police feel they are no longer trusted and are facing increased hostility from certain communities.

Police are reluctant to go into those communities and thus crime goes up under that theory, Keller said.

Watch the session for a more detailed breakdown of crime rates and a discussion of the factors behind the recent rise in crime.

Police: building trust and increasing safety

Michael Brown, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray. The names of these civilians killed by police in recent years are all too familiar across America. 

But they are only a few of the victims. The complete list is much longer, Justin McCrary, a University of California, Berkeley, professor said in opening the forum’s second session.

How much longer? Nobody knows.

With the Black Lives Matter movement, people can get a false impression that police shootings are on the rise, he said. “We really don’t know if this is a longstanding phenomenon or if it’s because of the advent of cell phone cameras and police body cameras.”

“There is actually no reliable federal source for these kinds of events,” he said.

Local law enforcement departments collect their own data but do not furnish them to a federal agency, leading to information silos or at best, crowdsourced data. Investigative media reports, such as those by conducted by The Washington Post and The Guardian, have compiled national estimates, but even that is “probably an undercount,” McCrary said.

What is certain is that these types of fatal encounters with police have eroded people’s trust in police, the panelists agreed.

The causes behind the controversial issue could be explained by two narratives, said panelist Rebecca Hetey, a social science research associate at Stanford’s Psychology Department. One involves “bad apples” within a department and the other points to a systemic problem.

Both are important “because how we look at a problem shapes how we make change,” she contended.

“Name-calling and denial will not get us anywhere,” Hetey said. That’s why “we want a data-driven problem-solving approach.”

Libby Scholz, chair of Stanford in Government, interviews SIEPR Director Mark Duggan and The Marshall Project’s Bill Keller after their panel discussion on crime rates.
Libby Scholz, chair of Stanford in Government, interviews SIEPR Director Mark Duggan and The Marshall Project’s Bill Keller after their panel discussion on crime rates.

Photo Credit: Steve Castillo

Hetey was part of an academic team at Stanford recruited by the City of Oakland in 2014 to analyze its police conduct over a 13-month period and recommend changes. Their report, completed last year, found a pattern of racial disparities, including how disproportionate numbers of blacks were being stopped and handcuffed.

Though the results are not proof of racial profiling, the research pointed to more of an institutional issue than “bad apples,” Hetey said. The Stanford team proposed recommendations for policy changes that included beefing up the use of data collection and video footage — for revealing both positive or negative conduct. Body camera footage, for instance, can be leveraged to show effective and new ways of policing.

“Transparency will be increased and it'll help build trust between police and the community it serves,” she said.

“Policing is changing and it must change,” said Eric Jones, Police Chief of Stockton, California. “Especially if we’re going to try to cut through the noise of two sides.”

Stockton is one of six pilot cities — and the only one from the West — that has received a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to work on a national initiative to build community trust and justice. 

Audience members raised tough, thought-provoking questions, reflecting the discourse and distrust in many American cities.

Jones noted how the threshold to convict a police officer is high and how every state and county has different standards for policy violations. “It is not consistent,” Jones acknowledged, and there are discussions now about getting some consistency.

For any positive change in policing to succeed, departments need leadership and buy-in from both ends, Jones said. Departments, he continued, have to “operationalize it” and “institutionalize it” to where it becomes a part of the culture. 

Officers should look to shifting their mindsets from that of a warrior to a guardian, taking on a problem-solving rather than a combative approach. “We’re not saying you can’t ever wear that warrior hat, but if they’re wearing that hat all the time, that’s a problem,” Jones said.

Even strategic changes in how often or when to deploy armored vehicles could have impact on public trust. 

“It’s not the equipment,” Jones said. “It’s how the equipment is used.”

Shea Streeter, a Stanford PhD candidate working on a dissertation that investigates the conditions under which police killings lead to public protests, moderated the session.

Watch the session to see the entire discussion that blended perspectives from academia and the trenches.

Technology and the fight against crime

Long gone are the days where police officers were armed only with bullets and batons.

Today, police forces have more advanced equipment and a slew of new — and emerging —technologies to aid them.

Echoing earlier sessions, more data and analysis are needed, panelists said.

“Are the benefits worth the costs? At this point, we have no idea,” said Jennifer Doleac, assistant professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia. Costs and unintended consequences need to be taken into account, she said.

Stanford Law School student Michael Poon moderates the session on fighting crime with technology.
Stanford Law School student Michael Poon moderates the session on fighting crime with technology.

Photo Credit: Steve Castillo

David Sklansky, the Stanley Morrison Professor of Law at Stanford and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, delineated key categories of recent technology adoption, ranging from weaponry and communication tools to surveillance methods and computerized information, including DNA matching.

Nowadays, there are flash bombs, robots and body cameras. Taser stun guns have proliferated: about 7 percent of the nation’s police departments had Tasers in 2000; by 2013, that portion had grown to about 80 percent, Sklansky said.

And before Kevlar was commercially introduced in the 1970s, an average of 20 to 25 police officers per 100,000 officers were killed on the job each year, he said. With increased use of the body armor, that figure has now steadily declined to an average of five to 10 a year.

Questions about the Taser gun — its benefits as well as its role in civilian deaths — remain. “Did it substitute for bullets, or does it increase police usage where they otherwise would not have used a firearm?” Sklansky posed.

In addition to physical harm, Sklansky said the risks associated with all kinds of technology adoption include systemic harm, where gadgets or digitized data may serve more as a distraction than an aid, and social harm, where police databases and algorithms could be skewed, putting a disproportionate focus on racial minorities. Intangible effects, such as a loss of privacy or dignity from the growing use of cameras, are also at stake.

Rick Smith, the CEO and co-founder of Axon, formerly named TASER International, said the electrical device is designed to incapacitate a person. He touted how Tasers are more effective than bullets at stopping a police subject and with lower physical risks.

Smith often clashed with Sklansky and disputed media reports that Tasers were responsible for the deaths of more than 100 people. He drew a distinction between immediate deaths or subsequent deaths at hospitals, and noted how there are other contributing factors.

Panelists said cities and police departments need to be careful when adopting new technologies, given the social and sometimes physical risks.

“Technology can be a game changer,” Doleac said. “Once taxpayers ask for more rigorous evidence, then there will be better evaluations.”

Michael Poon, a third-year law student at Stanford who is focusing on cybersecurity, surveillance and national security issues, moderated the session.

Watch the session to see the heated discussion and to get more details on the potential risks and benefits of technologies already in use or that police are eyeing for adoption.

The economics of incarceration

“Some say ‘the land of the free’ is now ‘the land of the incarcerated,’” Joan Petersilia said as she introduced the panelists for the final session.

Petersilia, the Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law at Stanford and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, has been instrumental in helping to shape sentencing and corrections reforms throughout the United States, including California’s historic realignment law of 2011, an attempt to downsize prisons and enhance rehabilitation.

She cited how the United States represents 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated, setting the backdrop for the discussion about prison overcrowding and the difficulties of changing the incarceration system.

The challenges run deep and run the gamut, ranging from mental health treatment behind bars to the continued grip of prison gangs, according to the panelists.

In terms of prison medical care, California “spends twice as much money per inmate as the next highest state of New York, and the results are no better,” said Matthew Cate, the executive director of the California State Association of Counties and former Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. One out of three inmates are receiving mental health care, he said.

David Maldonado, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, discusses the economics of incarceration.
David Maldonado, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, discusses the economics of incarceration.

Photo Credit: Steve Castillo

Cate agreed with the other panelists that not only do mental health issues have to be addressed but also improving education. Studies have shown education has an impact on lowering incarceration rates, and a majority of the incarcerated are poor and undereducated.

“Education has the power to be transformative for people, to create new opportunities for them,” said panelist David Maldonado. “Education moves us beyond the idea of recidivism and into different relationships and environments.”

Maldonado would know. He earned his GED diploma in jail and is now a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, thanks in part to a program called Project Rebound that provides support for the formerly incarcerated to enter higher education.

In the meantime, California’s realignment reform has meant a large shift of inmates from state-run prisons to county jails, as well as wide-scale releases of reoffending parolees from prisons.

“It's a move in the right direction, but when you have a lot of people sitting in county jail, it’s just not the right environment for that,” Maldonado said. Jails and their management systems are set up to be more temporary, he explained.

So now there’s an unexpected consequence that no one saw coming, Petersilia said. “People are saying, ‘I’d rather go to prison.’”

Maldonado used Top Ramen as a case in point: The instant noodle is in high demand at the canteen, but a dollar will pay for only one Top Ramen in jail, and a whole package of them in prison, he said.

Cate said a goal of California’s realignment “was to give people a chance” to improve their lives, especially after government spending on rehabilitation programs was slashed by 75 percent following the 2008 recession.

“But we still don’t invest enough,” he said. “So I don’t know why we would expect better results yet.”

Though California’s realignment reform is not the perfect solution, panelist Steven Raphael, a professor at Berkeley’s Richard & Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy, said he has seen some improvements.

He pointed to how prison dorms were extremely crowded before the realignment, with people getting cycled in and out after they break parole.

After the realignment, “we were releasing 1,000 a week,” Cate said, “and there wasn’t a rise in crime.”

Watch the session to catch more details about prison overcrowding, the continued grip of prison gangs and the difficulty of mental health treatment behind bars.

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