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What Lessons Can Business Teach Criminal Justice? Invest in Research

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After two decades of sustained crime reduction, violent crime rates increased in 2012. If we hope to reverse this trend, we can't simply replicate yesterday's strategies -- we must continue to innovate.

The past generation was arguably a golden era in criminal justice innovation. The management of police departments was revolutionized by Compstat. Thousands of addicted offenders avoided prison and got treatment thanks to drug courts. And DNA evidence helped rectify numerous miscarriages of justice.

Where will the Compstats of tomorrow come from? How will we find the next great ideas in criminal justice? The short answer: by investing in research.

By now, it is common business wisdom that investing in research and development is a good way to advance a company's bottom line. Think of the effort that went into designing the technological breakthroughs of the past generation -- and the resulting corporate profits.

Underneath the radar screen, it appears that the field of criminal justice is starting to embrace research. To test this idea, the Center for Court Innovation, in partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the U.S. Department of Justice, recently conducted a national leadership survey with more than 600 police chiefs, state chief judges, elected prosecutors, and probation and parole officials. The findings suggest that criminal justice leaders have gotten the message. Nine out of ten respondents reported that they regularly looked at research and data when making decisions. Furthermore, many criminal justice leaders are putting their money where their mouths are, hiring in-house researchers (39 percent of those surveyed) or contracting with external evaluators (50 percent).

The study also confirms the hunch that the use of research is strongly linked to innovative practices. Criminal justice leaders who embraced the use of research in their agencies were also more likely to rate themselves as innovative, to indicate that they work in an innovative agency, and to score higher on an index measuring the use of specific innovative practices at work.

When you take a closer look at the most influential criminal justice innovations of the last two decades, you will often find partnerships between researchers and practitioners. For example, scholars like David Kennedy of John Jay College and David Weisburd of George Mason University have played a leading role in focusing the energies of police departments on problem areas and specific individuals who are particularly likely to engage in violent behavior.

In Hawaii, a new program (known as HOPE) that offers immediate consequences to violations of probation, was born out of the frustrations of a single judge who kept seeing drug-addicted defendants released from prison return to court on new charges. The program has subsequently been adapted in numerous locations. This replication was driven in no small part by two UCLA Professors, Mark Kleiman and Angela Hawken, who published positive evaluations of HOPE's effectiveness and have tirelessly promoted the model across the country.

In short, investments in criminal justice research are not just of academic interest; they are capable of making a big difference where it matters most: on the streets. Despite this, the National Institute of Justice, the primary federal funder of criminal justice research, has an annual budget of roughly $50 million -- about one-tenth of what the National Institute of Health spends every year on dental research alone. And at the state and local level, government agencies are under enormous pressure to tighten their belts as revenues shrink. In this environment, it is tempting to view expenditures on research as luxury items and easy targets for budget cutters.

But the evidence suggests that criminal justice agencies would be wise to tack in the opposite direction, following the lead of successful businesses and increasing their investment in research. It is only by investing in research that criminal justice agencies can hope to document their results, spread best practices, and discover the next wave of innovative crime-fighting strategies.

Aubrey Fox and Greg Berman are, respectively, the director of special projects and the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation.