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Featured Research

Crime and Punishment

GSPP and Criminal Justice Policy

In 2009, Professor Steve Raphael spoke with Policy Notes (Winter 2009) about how mandatory and parole sentencing guidelines had created a “de-facto policy experiment,” resulting in America’s extraordinarily high incarceration rate. In the Fall 2011 issue, he discussed the federal court mandate for California to reduce its prison population and the impact of a budget realignment that proposed to push $6 billion from state to local levels in a variety of areas, including incarceration. Since then, the Goldman School’s criminal justice expertise has both broadened and deepened. In addition to Professor Steve Raphael, Professor Jack Glaser’s work with implicit discrimination and law enforcement (see article, page 9) and Professor Amy Lerman (see article, page. 6), GSPP recently welcomed Professor Jennifer Skeem, whose work combines expertise in clinical psychology and criminal justice.

For the past two years, Professor Steve Raphael has been studying the effects of realignment on California’s prison and jail population and crime rates, first as an internal researcher for the office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris and then in joint research with scholars at the Public Policy Institute of California.

“Realignment reduced California’s prison population to 1992, pre-3 strikes levels,” says Professor Raphael. “It has had an impact on the county jails, which have absorbed about one third of the lower risk inmates who have been moved out of state penitentiaries. But otherwise there has been very little impact on crime, recidivism or return to custody. It’s turned out to be a win-win.”

California's success in reducing prison overcrowding has also opened opportunities for new research agendas. Professor Raphael is working with Magnus Lofstrom of the Public Policy Institute of California to study how prosecutorial behavior may shift as realignment has changed how parole is administered.

“Given the new parole rules that went into effect in September 2011,” says Professor Raphael, “we want to study whether prosecutors are more or less likely to charge people who get arrested.”

Professor Raphael is also beginning a new project examining a randomized control trial of Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE), a program for those arrested for a felony who are released pre-trial subject to supervision.

“Our evaluation is randomly assigning a portion of pre-trial releases to be actively supervised by Judge Steven Alm,” says Professor Raphael. “If someone commits a pretrial violation, Judge Alm uses a combined system of swift, certain and brief punishment in combination with graduated rehabilitative services for those who need it. The study follows people for a year to see what happens to pretrial misconduct levels and arrest rates. We’re hoping to find successful ways to manage offenders outside of jail. The study addresses the issues raised by the increased use of county jails as a result of realignment.

“County jails are crowded,” he continues. “Any innovations that could safely relieve this crowding  would be welcomed.”

Professor Jennifer Skeem stands at the intersection of criminal justice, public health and psychology.

“I study youth and adults with behavioral and emotional problems who are at risk for violence, crime, and justice system involvement,” she says. “The goal is to inform policy and legal decision-making about these groups.”

This includes people with serious mental illness, a group that is disproportionately represented in the justice system.

“Work over the last fifteen years has challenged the dominant assumption that these people are in prison simply because the mental health system somehow failed them,” says Professor Skeem. “We’re learning that mental illness rarely is the direct source of criminal behavior.”

“Of the violent incidents and crimes in which people with mental illness are involved, less than 10% are directly caused by delusions, hallucinations, or other symptoms,” she continues. “Although psychiatric treatment is (appropriately) emphasized in programs for justice-involved people with mental illness, symptoms explain little of the variance in criminal behavior.

“People with mental illness share strong risk factors with their healthier counterparts, like disadvantaged neighborhoods, childhood abuse, antisocial peers, substance abuse, and emotional dysregulation. If programs are expanded beyond psychiatric treatment to also target factors that maintain criminal behavior, they may be much more effective in promoting desistance and community re-entry.”


Professor Skeem’s work also involves risk assessment tools, which summarize risk factors to estimate a person’s likelihood of future violence or other criminal behavior.

“These tools are increasingly being used to inform sentencing decisions.” she says. “Risk assessment can be used to help reduce bloated prison populations without increasing the crime rate. For example, in Virginia, risk assessment is completed for nonviolent offenders who are bound for incarceration. Those who represent a low risk are recommended for alternative punishment like probation; those with higher scores proceed with their sentence recommendations unchanged.”

Some argue that sentences informed by risk assessment instruments are discriminatory because the instruments include variables (e.g., criminal history, employment status) that can be proxies for minority race and poverty. But existing practices—sentencing guidelines that focus on criminal history; judges’ informal consideration of risk—can also create bias.  Professor Skeem, along with Professors John Monahan and Amy Lerman, is working to empirically assess whether the introduction of risk assessment to sentencing exacerbates, ameliorates, or has no effect on any existing racial disparities in incarceration.  

“One way to maximize public safety is to change the behavior of a small group of high-risk individuals,” says Professor Skeem. “Correctional programs that target the highest risk offenders are the most effective in reducing recidivism.”

This may be particularly true for juveniles. Professor Skeem is on the front end of new projects that focus on whether early adolescence offers a unique window of opportunity for well-aimed treatment to improve the life chances of high-risk youth.  

“Adolescence is a period of remarkable brain plasticity,” she says. “The onset of puberty marks the beginning of changes in features like reward processing that may make  this a unique period for social and emotional learning—a time when behavior is most responsive to shaping through intervention.

“We can and should continue to work with high-risk adults. But the question is whether early adolescence provides a natural inflection point for promoting trust, empathy, and prosocial motivation and goals. If so, policy could be shaped toward intervening during this period to yield large-scale crime reduction.”