Why quick fix solutions to crime and criminal justice challenges don’t and won’t work

You’ve heard and seen them. They include some of our elected and appointed officials, wanna be politicians, heads of organizations, and pundits that appear in our news media feeds complaining about crime rates, and the institutions we’ve created and entrusted to respond to this social problem.

They decry the uptick in crime, the brazenness of today’s criminals, and the general moral depravity of society. This loose collection of individuals are quick to blame someone (e.g., an elected politician, single mothers, etc.), an entity (e.g., the family, or a branch of the criminal justice system (CJS), etc.), or some new trend in society (e.g., social media, etc.).

The rhetoric of these critics temporarily standing in front of or holding a microphone (or bullhorn for that matter), may sound credible at the time, allows them to catch a headline or two, score some political points, and maybe even bolster the fledgling ratings of news organizations, but it’s the same old thing. The subtext is elect or appoint me, I will do a better job, I have new ideas, or the guts to do something about the real criminal justice problems where others have failed.

These individuals often argue that what we really need is more laws, police, correctional facilities, lengthier prison sentences, harsher prison conditions, equipping police with better tools, etc. But after a careful review these so-called “solutions” are overly simple. And if their proposals sound new, then they are usually old wine in new bottles.

To be certain, criminal justice related challenges have existed since the creation of laws and organizations designed to respond to individuals and organizations that break them.

Murder, robbery, assault, etc. are not going away anytime soon. And there are no quick fix solutions.

More importantly, we can’t simply delegate the management of crime and people who engage in criminal activity to elected officials like mayors, chiefs of police or public safety, or the individual branches of the CJS, and wash our hands of the problem. This approach is not vigilanteeism or taking the law into our own hands.

So why do so many of our leaders or those who aspire to leadership positions play the blame game?

The public loves quick fix solutions. In fact they are socialized into this way of thinking. Got a medical problem, surely it’s easily diagnosable, and there’s an appropriate drug to take that will give you instant relief. Worried about your state of affairs, seek distraction by grabbing a drink or getting high, rather than confronting the problem.

And why are the previously mentioned targets quickly blamed? It’s easy. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of bad political leaders and heads of criminal justice agencies. But that’s not my point.

Why is blaming politicians, branches of the CJS and the heads of these agencies bad?

It’s an overly simple approach to a real and persistent problem and it’s part of what got us to where we are now. This tactic appeals to people who think that it’s easy to solve the crime and justice challenges of America.

The problem with the new and improved solutions approach is that it takes the focus away from the more labor intense processes and issues, the ones that are harder to solve, like encouraging people to take individual responsibility and stop blaming others, the development of quality interpersonal relations, the improvement of family dynamics, providing adequate resources to schools that teach meaningful content and not to the test or are staffed with instructors whose primary job is classroom management.

How do we change this state of affairs?

In the short term, if we are going to implement meaningful change in the reducing crime and improving the criminal justice agencies tasked with responding to crime and criminals we need to base our decisions on empirical research. It exists and it is conducted by experts. And there are methods to determine who and who is not an expert. The system is not perfect. But we need to avoid a tendency to ignore the results, and the policy recommendations, even when it’s not politically convenient.

In the long term, the real work needs to be done in our personal relationships, families, neighborhoods and communities. Values of equity and fairness need to be emphasized, and we have to question and avoid the winner takes all approach at all costs.

This strategy might also consider looking towards those countries that are similar to the United States but have less crime. Indeed there are subtle differences in the ways that those societies are arranged, but maybe we should seriously consider emulating some of the more helpful processes (e.g., ones that encourage social solidarity) in those nations.

In the end, I’m not suggesting some sort of utopian society, but it’s time to stop advocating the quick fixes and choose ones that have been empirically proven to work.


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