Friday, September 23, 2011

Pressing the Issue of Positive Justice Reform in the Press

By Jason Fenster

I spend the beginning of each day arranging press clips with our trusty team of interns. We, like most organizations, do this to keep an eye on what’s happening across the country, to see what policies are moving where and to keep an eye on messaging, both positive and negative, in state and local policy battles.

On September 6, an article titled “Low Crime Statistics Questioned by Chief” was published by The Orion. If, like me, you read this too quickly, you may have assumed this was a joke headline published by the satirical news source, The Onion. Why else would a Chief of Police dispute declining crime rates, public safety improvements, and better outcomes for people and communities? But, unfortunately, the explaining-away of positive developments and the harping on isolated, negative stories on the path to positive justice reforms are the norm for many on the “Crime and Courts” beat.

The tenor of debate around criminal justice issues is disappointing to say the least. The ramping up of rhetoric and disturbing reliance on fear-mongering by the media and legislators are all too familiar in policy arguments. Despite 2010 figures showing the overall number of people in state prisons dropping for first time since 1972, and a mounting body of research identifying effective policies for maintaining public safety and providing needed rehabilitative and treatment services other than incarceration, the “tough on crime” mentality continues to linger and rear its ugly head, costing taxpayers billions upon billions of dollars each year.

So, when the FBI’s 2010 Uniform Crime Report (UCR) was released this week, you can understand why I was nervous. Regardless of the data, what would the media response be? If crime was up, would states abandon recent efforts to save money be incarcerating fewer people and say that keeping people employed has no relationship to public safety? Would policymakers buck data and reject practices proven to be effective to acquiesce to foolish “lock ‘em up” alternatives?

And what if crime was down? Would we see attempts to explain away the data? Would media outlets shy away from a story that has less shock value and doesn’t carry the allure of fear and anger that accompanies most crime blotter stories?

Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised on all fronts. Overall, the U.S. saw a drop in crime across the board. Violent offenses? Down 6%. Property crimes? Down 2.7%. In every region of the country and in both urban and rural areas crime statistics were lower than expected, particularly during trying economic times. (And, for a not-so-shameless plug, you can find JPI’s analysis of the data here.)

The media response, too, not what I had expected. Of course, news outlets had the requisite “Criminologists are shocked” tagline (while leaving out the more relevant “advocates told you so” quote). But, they reported on the story favorably, noting falling crime rates without attempting to explain it away due to some statistical anomaly.You can find some of these stories in the AP, CNN and Wall Street Journal.*

But even with this favorable report from the FBI, continued reform is necessary. The U.S. incarcerates a shocking and disgraceful number of people in an effort that research time and again shows does little to rehabilitate people in prisons and jails and less to support communities. But, data, research and policy analysis can only do so much. The influence from media outlets, political stump speeches, and even community message boards has a substantial impact on the policies that will either incarcerate more people or create stronger, safer communities.

I hope we’re on the right track, and I hope that someday soon, an article titled “Low Crime Statistics Questioned by Chief” will only be absurd enough for The Onion.

*One important things to note. Each article includes the sentiment below (quoted here from the Wall Street Journal): “The lower crime figures contrast with the widely held belief that bad economic times lead to higher crime.”

But, as JPI noted in its September 2010 report Money Well Spent, poverty does not create crime. Rather, people with the fewest financial resources are more likely to end up in prison or jail and the most likely to experience crime--an important distinction that is often overlooked but also a distinction that ought to impact how we craft policy. We need to support the most vulnerable in our communities. We need to recognize their situation and make smart investments that will improve their well-being and that of those around them. Instead of over-incarcerating people from poorer communities, we should seek to over-educate, over-train, and over-employ. Now that is a public safety investment I can get behind.

Jason Fenster is the Communications Associate for JPI.

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