Perceptions Matter: A Roadmap to Reducing Crime

Since 1990, New York City has seen one of the longest sustained drop in crime ever experienced by a big city -- murders reduced by 79 percent, rape by 62 percent and robbery by 82 percent.

Even as our police officers, attorneys, judges and elected officials bask in the glory of these results, nagging questions remain: Can this good fortune continue? Is it possible to reduce crime even further? And, perhaps most important, how would we accomplish this?

A small community in Brooklyn offers a possible roadmap for the nation.

Researchers from the National Center for State Courts spent three years tracking more than 3,000 misdemeanor offenders, half of whom had their cases prosecuted in a conventional fashion and half of whom were participants in an experimental program in southwest Brooklyn called the Red Hook Community Justice Center. At the Justice Center, instead of receiving fines or short jail sentences, low-level defendants were sentenced to perform community restitution and receive social services, including drug treatment, job training and counseling.

The results, released this week, were unambiguous: The defendants who went through the Justice Center had lower re-arrest rates -- reoffending was reduced by 10 percent among adult offenders and 20 percent among juveniles.

Having determined that alternative sanctions made a difference, the research team next sought to find out why. The conclusion they came to was that the Justice Center changed defendants' attitudes toward the justice system. By treating defendants with dignity and respect, the Justice Center improved perceptions of the system's fairness and legitimacy. This, in turn, promoted law-abiding behavior.

For example, Helen had spent nearly a decade on the streets before coming to the Justice Center on a prostitution charge. Thanks to Judge Alex Calabrese, she was sentenced to drug treatment instead of jail. She reported to court regularly on her progress and was even applauded for her success in treatment in the courtroom. Today, Helen is sober, employed, and working on a master's degree. She is also married -- and she chose Judge Calabrese to officiate at the ceremony.

The results from Red Hook offer support to advocates of an idea known as "procedural justice." Originally articulated by Yale Law School professor Tom Tyler, procedural justice argues that those who interact with the justice system care as much (if not more) about how they are treated as they do about the outcome of their case. If individuals feel that they have been dealt with respectfully, and communicated with clearly, they are more likely to believe that legal institutions are legitimate and, in turn, more likely to comply with the law.

The Red Hook evaluation is the latest of several studies that lend credence to this idea. A recent Urban Institute evaluation of judicially-monitored drug treatment programs found reduced drug use and recidivism among participants when compared to those who went through regular courts. Crucially, the strongest predictor of reduced future criminality and drug use was a defendant's attitude towards the judge - those who viewed the judge favorably were less likely to re-offend. This impact was seen across all demographics, regardless of defendants' race, gender, or criminal history.

Another study examined the impact of a variety of measures designed to reduce gun violence in troubled neighborhoods in Chicago. Researchers from Yale, Columbia and the University of Massachusetts found that the most effective program was the simplest: a series of "notification forums" in which law enforcement officials and community leaders spent one hour communicating directly and respectfully with offenders, delivering a clear message that further violence was unacceptable. The meetings, which were carefully scripted in advance, emphasized both surveillance and help -- drug treatment and other social services were offered to all who attended.

Individuals who participated in the meetings in Chicago were almost 30 percent less likely to return to prison when compared to similar individuals who did not attend a forum. A survey of participants suggested that offenders were more likely to comply with the law and less likely to carry a gun when they had more positive opinions of the law and, in particular, the police.

In sum, the research suggests that perceptions matter.

The implications are clear. Criminal justice agencies must pay attention to how their efforts are perceived by the intended targets. Both the general public and offender populations need to understand what criminal justice agencies are doing and why.

This means that we should be training judges, prosecutors, probation officials, and police officers in effective communication techniques. It means that community outreach programs are not just feel-good window dressing, but essential crime-fighting strategies. And it means that in places where crime is most serious and relations between the justice system and local residents are most damaged, we should be making an investment in special programs, like the Red Hook Community Justice Center or the Chicago offender notification forums, designed to bridge the gap.

Not too long ago, the conventional wisdom said that it was impossible to change the behavior of offenders and that cities like New York were essentially ungovernable. We now know that this is not the case. But that's just the start of the good news. The research suggests that it may be possible to continue to drive the crime rate even lower by promoting voluntary adherence to the law -- not by increasing arrests and meting out longer sentences, but by improving how defendants perceive justice.