In the wake of the March for Science last month (April, 2017), the internet buzzed with debate over the “neutrality” of science. Jesse Singal at Science of Usparsed the two sides: while some marchers argued that science is intrinsically political (and, therefore, ought to be social justice-oriented), others (including renowned psychologist Steven Pinker) accused organizers of compromising their “goals with anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric.” Singal concludes that while “Science is a human enterprise that has been frequently used for abusive and oppressive ends,” “there is something uniquely important about the scientific method and empiricism in general.” Over at Cyborgology, Joseph Waggle called apolitical science a “fantasy” and a “myth.” Being both for and against science are “two strategies toward the same end of winning and keeping political power,” with elites using science-talk to cloak deeper political struggles.
Criminologists have entered the fray in a big way. In March, more than 25 former presidents of the American Society of Criminology (ASC) and other academic luminaries wrote an open letter to President Trump, entitled “Keep Science in the Department of Justice.” The signatories argued that federal justice agencies should continue to support and follow “good science” that is “free of ideological bias, and conducted without political interference.” As we were writing this post, the ASC Executive Board published a statement on “The Trump Administration’s Policies Relevant to Crime and Justice” that critiqued the “incongruity” between Trump’s Executive Orders and “well-established science about the causes and consequences of crime.” The ASC letter further implored the Trump administration to use criminological science to “promote justice.”
We agree wholeheartedly with much of the two ASC letters. Agencies like the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics are vitally important, and they ought to be helmed by criminological experts. And much of Trump’s criminal justice rhetoric has dismissed or manipulated basic social science findings like the effect of immigration on crime and trends in violent crime rates. So too do we agree that the criminal justice system ought to be oriented toward justice for all.
To agree with the letters is not, however, to overlook another truism: criminological research in the U.S. (and, we suspect, across the world) has always been entangled in politics. (As Johann Kohler quipped, it is not as though “CJ knowledge was political” and then “Science fixed it.”) At the risk of being overly dramatic, we cannot think of a time or place in American history during which criminology was not political. Politicians, together with bureaucrats, academics, journalists, prisoners, and everyday citizens have continually fought over who to punish, and how to do it. These struggles are always about both the logistics of punishment (e.g., Can prisons rehabilitate or reform the people locked inside their walls and, if so, how?) and the nature of those who commit crime (e.g., Are those who commit crime fallen souls who can be redeemed, or are they incorrigible monsters?).
There is no clearer example of this than Robert Martinson’s famous “nothing works” article published in 1974 in The Public Interest. In the version of events re-told by many criminologists, Martinson’s (now infamous) article over-simplified the research he conducted during the early 1970s with Douglas Lipton and Judith Wilks. In particular, Martinson is remembered for concluding that in-prison treatment programs almost never work to reduce recidivism. Although this conclusion was unwarranted given existing evidence, pundits and scholars insisted that Martinson’s article had an immediate and massive effect. As legend has it, this article swept the legs out from under the rehabilitative enterprise.
But this version of events, as documented in our book Breaking the Pendulum: The Long Struggle Over Criminal Justice (and as explored by other scholars, including Michelle Brown in The Culture of Punishment), gets almost everything about Martinson and his article wrong. The research was shoddy and the article wasn’t all that interesting—at least to criminologists. And Martinson surely wasn’t the first to point out the failures of correctional treatment programs. To understand the article’s fanatical reception, we need to situate it within a larger struggle over punishment raging in the first half of the 1970s. Whether using it to justify new sentencing regimes, or to explain a shift from education to reentry in prison programs, or as a rallying cry for doing research on “what works,” Martinson’s article became very influential because powerful actors made it so: the nature and impact of Martinson’s article cannot and should not be understood outside its political and historical context.
Similarly, the push to reform criminal justice policies in the 2010s was propelled by political actors deploying criminological knowledge on the harms of mass penal control. This research, steadily built in the 1990s and 2000s, produced a number of important findings, including that some kinds of targeted intervention could reduce recidivism rates, states could change parole policies to minimize technical violations, mass incarceration harms children and communities, imprisonment rates (especially for the drug war) have profoundly disproportionate effects on black families, and more. This body of scholarship became politically influential as it became increasingly voluminous and as actors began to employ it as a part of a symbolic struggle to undercut mass incarceration and related processes.
In the same way, John Hagan’s Who Are the Criminals? The Politics of Crime Policy from the Age of Roosevelt to the Age of Reagan shows how criminological research on “career criminals” undergirded the turn toward incapacitation as a dominant penal goal (see also Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, on this history). Or Tony Platt’s lecture on the brief flourishing (and, shortly thereafter, institutional crippling) of radical criminologists in the 1970s.
To return to the ASC letters, criminological data and findings are inherently political—because political actors use research/data to support or oppose current arrangements and future developments. But, as the second ASC letter highlights, this is exactly the point. Democratic governance means political debate—debates, we would agree, that should be based in data and deep empirical research. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves in thinking that the side with the best data, best models, and best arguments will always win. Politics isn’t a game of equals; powerful actors can (and often do) support claims with bad science or misuse good science to support harmful policies. In short, the political uses of criminological knowledge depends in large part on the shape of struggle—that is, the distribution of power among actors involved in battles over crime policy.
By writing the second letter, the ASC directly entered this fray as an agonist, struggling to impose their vision of the state of the world. We can see this symbolic struggle, for example, in the framing of the recent uptick in homicides in 2015. The national uptick was driven by substantial increases in a small number of large cities. The ASC letter frames this as a “non-existent crime wave”—a framing contested even among some criminologists (see, for example, this twitter thread by Thomas Abt). Similarly, despite the letter’s emphasis on “evidence-based” policy, the agenda outlined by ASC includes tactics that have faced relatively little academic scrutiny (such as federal consent decrees for embattled police departments). Thus, despite their framing of “just the facts, ma’am,” the letter represents a very specific vision of justice.
In short, we argue that the production of criminological science will always be a politically charged endeavor. It is not enough to publish sound findings—political actors must also champion those ideas in their attempts to reshape who and how we punish. Groups such as the ASC taking on these explicitly political roles will not automatically win the debate by entering as the “expert” in the room, but they do change the shape of the struggle. Whether this will help or hinder the reform effort remains an empirical question.