As the Trump administration sees it, the United States has a serious violent-crime problem. Some would even call it “carnage.” In public remarks, both Donald Trump and his attorney general Jeff Sessions have painted a hellish landscape of a country overrun by gangs and murderers, and the president has issued several executive orders aimed at curbing this supposed crime epidemic.
Data does not support this grim picture. Yes, there has been an uptick in violence in the last two years, but crime overall has rapidly and significantly declined over the past two decades. But the nation’s top criminologists are worried—they fear that the evidence-based crime policies boosted by the Obama administration could be in danger.
In an open letter, 25 former presidents of the American Society of Criminology urge Trump and Sessions to “keep science in the Department of Justice,” The Washington Post reported on March 23. They ask that any new appointees to head the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics—the research and data branches of the DOJ waiting for new chiefs—be “bona fide research scientists with knowledge of crime and justice.”
They hope that the new leaders will maintain “rigorous standards of scientific integrity, objectivity, and transparency” and underline that “science is honest, open, free of ideological bias, and conducted without political interference.”
The criminologists emphasize that the federal government has “an important role to play in the promotion of scientific best practices across all levels of government.” On what really should be a no-brainer, they felt the need to urge the administration to pick leaders who will “promote criminal justice policies, programs, and practices that are evidence-based,” and encourage “fresh thinking on long standing issues regarding crime and justice.”
So far, there is little “fresh” or “evidence-based” thinking on part of the administration. In fact, Sessions’ rhetoric on the dangers of marijuana is a near-perfect throwback to the heyday of the largely discredited “War on Drugs,” and his fear-mongering statements lack real scientific support.
The danger in inserting too much politics and too little science in crime policy is fairly apparent in the US criminal justice system today, an apparatus eroded by decades of a pandering, “tough-on-crime” mindset on all levels, from local prosecutor to president.