Distinguished Achievement Award

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Acceptance Remarks: Jeremy Travis

2014 Recipient

The following are remarks by Jeremy Travis, President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, upon receipt of the Distinguished Achievement Award in Evidence-Based Crime Policy, June 24, 2014.

To David Weisburd, Cynthia Lum, friends, and colleagues:

Thank you for that generous introduction, David. I treasure our friendship over the years and consider myself one of your students. You have taught me invaluable lessons about the role of the police, the nature of crime, the importance of scientific rigor, and new ways to think about our response to crime. And thank you, Cynthia, for your leadership on promoting a new generation of policing research. Our field has high hopes for your success.

I wish to commend my fellow honorees today. Each of you is a true champion, and your induction into the Hall of Fame for Evidence-Based Policing reflects your extraordinary professional commitment and personal creativity. Your service has benefited your communities in immeasurable ways, and I am proud to stand with you at this ceremony.

I am humbled more than words can say by the decision of the Center on Evidence-Based Crime Policy to present me with the Distinguished Achievement Award for my work in this field, and I am particularly grateful to the nominating committee for recommending me. The award would be honor enough, but to receive this award today, before an audience with so many friends from so many different chapters of my life, is truly a deeply moving moment. As I look at the people in this room, I am struck by the close-knit nature of our community of criminal justice professionals, researchers, practitioners, and reformers. Each one of you has played a role in my personal development. You have stretched my worldview, deepened my understanding of the issues we confront, and helped me confront my own limitations. So I feel indebted to you as I receive this honor today.

I am particularly struck by the passage of time represented in this room. As I was preparing for this ceremony, I reflected on a fact that is both sobering and instructive. It is 20 years ago this summer that Susan and I packed our daughters, Aliza and Zoe, into the car and moved from New York City to Washington, D.C.. I had decided to accept the offer from Janet Reno, our attorney general, to join the Clinton administration as director of the National Institute of Justice. One of the reasons I was so excited about that opportunity was the prospect of working closely with Laurie Robinson, who is here today, who served then and again in the Obama administration, as assistant attorney general for justice programs. It was Laurie, with the support and guidance of Ms. Reno, who made it possible for NIJ to become the science agency it is today—and to advance the cause of evidence-based crime policy. It is fitting that I am here at George Mason, which has the good fortune to count Laurie among its faculty, to accept an award recognizing the work that we did together. It is also instructive to remember that these two decades have seen enormous progress on this agenda and that the cause of evidence-based crime policy has seen another champion in another attorney general, Eric Holder, who also learned his craft under the mentorship of Janet Reno.

Remembering the legacy of Janet Reno provides the appropriate framework for the thoughts I would like to share today. It is instructive to remember that Janet Reno majored in chemistry at Cornell. She had the razor sharp mind of a scientist who valued the process of intellectual discovery, respected the independence of the scholar, and knew that the research process is not always quick, and the answers are not always clear. Yet we should also remember that Janet Reno was a politician. She ran for office as states attorney in Miami-Dade County and knew the importance of listening to the public, testing her ideas in the messy arena of everyday discourse, and respecting our democratic institutions. These two parts of her—the scientist and the politician—were sometimes at odds, but more often she was able to integrate them into her approach to the pressing issues of crime and justice.

As we think about the process of developing an evidence-based approach to crime policy, we should seek to emulate this dual attention to science and democracy. To expand on this thought, I would like to share some personal observations based on my recent stint as chair of the consensus panel of the National Academy of Sciences that produced the report, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. This report, which was released on April 30, reflects the work of 20 scholars and experts who labored hard to arrive at a consensus on two questions posed by the National Academy of Sciences: how do we explain the four-fold increase in incarceration rates over the past 40 years, following 50 years of stability, and how do we assess the consequences of this unprecedented reliance on prison as a response to crime? Because we were convened by the NAS, we were of course constrained to an assessment of the “evidence” on these two questions.

So at a conference on evidence-based crime policy, I would like to share some thoughts on the journey our panel traveled to assess this evidence. The first point to highlight is that our panel included historians, economists, political scientists, criminologists, psychologists, legal philosophers, public policy experts, and practitioners. So, as you can imagine, we had lively discussions about what constitutes “evidence.” I believe that one of the major contributions of our report is to bring together evidence from a variety of disciplines and weave that evidence into a single narrative that explains our history and presents a picture of the effects of our current high rates of incarceration. In thinking about evidence-based crime policy in the future, we need to reach out to these disciplines to bring multiple scholarly perspectives to the table. Otherwise, our understanding of the world we seek to explore will be limited and therefore our ability to define pathways for future policy will be stunted.

But our NAS panel reached an impasse when we faced our third assignment—we were expected to describe the implications of the evidence on the reasons behind the build-up in prisons and the impact of these incarceration rates. We felt that the typical model of cost-benefit was an inappropriate way to think about the proper use of prison in a democracy. The framework that occupies most policy debates—stated as, if we reduce prisons by X percent, can we afford a crime increase of Y percent, or if we shorten the sentence by A months, how much will crime increase?—was not only scientifically uncertain, but fundamentally inappropriate. Yes, our panel did arrive at conclusions about the low public safety benefits of very long sentences and mandatory minimums; we did summarize the evidence showing the scant benefits of the 10-fold increase in incarceration rates for drug offenses, but we wanted to remind our readers that these are not the only considerations in developing future policy directions for the country.

To help frame our recommendations, we reviewed the scholarly literature on four principles. You may think it unusual that a report of the National Academy of Sciences would speak in a normative voice, but we found it important to review a different kind of “evidence”—the evidence on first principles in our democracy, value propositions that have a long and honored tradition in Western thought. Accordingly, in Chapter 12, after we completed our assessment of the empirical evidence, we trace the lineage of four principles that we assert should guide the policy discussions in the future. They are the principles of “proportionality” (that the punishment should fit the crime); “parsimony” (that the state is not authorized to inflict pain on its citizens beyond that necessary to achieve a legitimate social purpose); “citizenship” (that the individuals in prison should be treated with human dignity and that the prison experience should not so diminish their status that their reintegration is thwarted); and “social justice” (that, as a social institution, prisons should aspire to serve the ends of justice and should be democratically accountable).

If you read only one chapter of the NAS report, I would strongly recommend Chapter 12. It reminds us of the important role of prisons in our society, the appropriate limits of the power of the state to deprive its citizens of their liberty, and the respect for human dignity that should be afforded to our fellow citizens by everyone who works in the criminal justice system. These principles resonate with the politician side of Janet Reno. Inspired by her example, we should remember that in considering the role of prisons and punishment in our democracy, these principles should always infuse and guide our commitment to developing crime policies that are based on strong evidence.

We have so much work ahead of us. Crime rates are still far too high, particularly in communities of color in urban America. As the NAS panel report concludes, our incarceration rates are also too high, far outside the experience of any other Western democracy. The interactions between the police and young people, particularly in minority neighborhoods, tend to undermine the respect for the rule of law that is a bedrock for our democracy. Our treatment of crime victims is highly inadequate, leaving millions of Americans damaged and struggling to recover from the harms they have suffered. Our systems that administer justice are poorly resourced and struggling to embrace innovation.

So we have much to do. In the work ahead, the role of the movement for evidence-based crime policy is essential to our success. The lead proponent of this approach is your Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason. You should be proud of the many contributions you have made, in a very short time, to advancing practices that are sound, effective and humane. You have promoted the role of science in a policy domain where more science is needed, but we have too rarely allowed the scientific enterprise to inform policy. Our country is the beneficiary of your work and I count myself among your many fans. With respect for everyone committed to this cause, I am honored to accept this award.