There is widespread agreement from across the political spectrum that the United States criminal justice system is broken. We spend far too much money, incarcerate far too many people, and yet still don’t manage to keep many of our communities safe. While there are many reasons for this system failure, the fundamental problem is that our approach to dealing with crime has remained essentially unchanged since the early 20th century. As a result, law enforcement, prosecutors, defenders, judges, and other decision makers do not have the information, technology, and tools they need to protect public safety and generate just and equitable outcomes.
But this need not be the case. NYU Law's Criminal Justice Lab aims to provide the resources and expertise to support the development of a bold, 21st century model for criminal justice that can dramatically reduce both crime and incarceration in our lifetimes. We take a systemic and interdisciplinary approach to the problem—breaking down barriers between different parts of the criminal justice system and drawing on expertise from other social sectors (such as health care and behavioral science) to identify the most effective methods for preventing and responding to crime. And we leverage data, analytics, and technology to develop tools to empower decision-makers to enhance public safety and fairness in a smarter, more effective way.
The nation spends over $270 billion on criminal justice annually, and maintains the highest rate of incarceration and highest prison population in the world. On any given day, 2.3 million people are incarcerated in American jails and prisons, with an additional 4 million on probation or parole. If the US prison population were a city, it would be the fifth-largest in the country, outnumbering Phoenix, Philadelphia, and San Diego.
Our current criminal system is not effective in reducing crime or promoting justice, and it suffers from several major flaws:
- In spite of our immense expenditures on the criminal justice system, our communities are not as safe as they could and should be. Four American cities—Baltimore, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Detroit—rank on the list of the fifty most dangerous cities in the world.
- Too many resources are spent on charging and incarcerating Americans for low-level non-violent offenses.
- Our broken bail system causes many individuals who still await trial and do not pose a threat to public safety, to spend time in jail only because they cannot afford bail.
- Racial minorities are disproportionately represented in our criminal system and are more likely to be arrested and spend more time in jails and prisons.
- Even though a sizable portion of our jail and prison population suffer from mental illness or substance abuse disorder, our criminal system fails to treat these underlying drivers of crime.
We believe that two core principles are critical to effective reform:
1. We need to broaden the lens we use to evaluate our responses to crime and allow ourselves to ask questions that might challenge some of the fundamental underpinnings of the current justice system.
- How do we define public safety?
- What do the communities most affected by crime want from the justice system?
- If an individual has significant issues related to mental illness or addiction, how should that affect our response to criminal behavior?
We can only answer these sorts of questions if we take a systemic, interdisciplinary approach—that is to say, rather than looking at how one player in the criminal justice system performs its function, we must examine how the entire system operates together to produce outcomes, both positive and negative. This involves removing the barriers within the criminal justice system that prevent decision makers from collaborating on solutions, and building bridges to other systems—medicine, behavioral health, education, etc.—that could help generate innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
2. We must leverage data, analytics, and technology to provide the tools and information decision-makers need to create better results. Unfortunately, the technological revolution that is transforming critical sectors such as healthcare and education has thus far failed to impact criminal justice. A profound data gap exists and, in many instances, we do not know what we are doing, why we are doing it, or whether it creates the outcomes we want. This results in the persistent misallocation of resources and the routine arrest, charging, and detaining of people who may not present a meaningful risk to public safety, or who may suffer from serious issues related to mental illness or substance abuse that will remain unaddressed—and in fact, may be exacerbated—by extended periods in the criminal justice system. The Criminal Justice Lab aims to develop and test tools that will allow criminal justice decision makers to make informed choices about how to deal with public safety issues—and to evaluate the impact of those decisions.
The Criminal Justice Lab continually seeks out opportunities to partner with leaders and change-makers across disciplines to turn theory into practice and test new approaches to complicated criminal justice challenges. Some of our projects include:
- Police Diversion Screening Tool: The Lab has designed a police screening tool that will be used to divert individuals suffering from mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness from the traditional criminal justice system. The tool, which is intended to be used by law enforcement officers in the field, is the first of its kind and is currently being piloted in Indianapolis, Indiana in partnership with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. This tool has the potential to decrease future crime and reduce jail population by moving away from the current one-size-fits-all model, where everyone is funneled through the criminal justice system, regardless of mental illness, homelessness, or substance abuse issues. This project represents an effort to move upstream to identify and treat the underlying causes of crime, and to ensure that those individuals who can be safely diverted to treatment are diverted at the earliest point possible.
- Assessment and Intervention Center (AIC): As part of the Lab’s partnership with the city of Indianapolis, we are assisting the city’s development of the Assessment and Intervention Center, where individuals going through the criminal system will be screened for mental illness, substance abuse disorder, homelessness, trauma, and traumatic brain injury. The ultimate goal is to design a system where this information can be used, with consent, to create dispositions that focus on treating underlying conditions and reducing recidivism, instead of on incarceration.
Anne Milgram is the founding director of the Criminal Justice Lab. She has worked as a state and federal prosecutor, State Attorney General, and a philanthropy executive to transform and modernize the American criminal justice system.
Nurit Lavie is the deputy director of the Criminal Justice Lab. Nurit served as a prosecutor in Israel for several years before moving to New York and completing her Master of Laws (LL.M) at NYU School of Law.
Kimberly Saltz is a research fellow with the Criminal Justice Lab. She has worked for a variety of humanitarian organizations and non-profits in New York City and holds a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University.
Emily Grasso is a research fellow with the Criminal Justice Lab. She is a second-year law student at NYU School of Law and holds a Bachelor of Arts from Fordham University.