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Crime, Policing, and Justice: 50 Years of Progress?

Lynn Addington speaks at the event,
Credit: Caralee Adams

Today’s headlines may lead some people to conclude that crime is worse today than it was in the 1960s.

“People often look back and think things were better in the past. That simply wasn’t true,” said School of Public Affairs Professor Dave Marcotte, who organized a panel Oct. 20 to discuss a 1967 report on the state of crime in America and progress made since.

Experts from academia and law enforcement gathered on campus to review the findings of the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, appointed in the 1960s by President Lyndon Johnson on crime, policing and justice. The panelists reflected on the lingering challenges and lessons learned over the years that has led, in fact, to a decrease in crime rates.

Researchers now have more data than ever to help inform effective public policy to fight crime.

“Social scientists have contributed to our understanding of crime and justice,” said Marcotte. “Compared to the 60s, we have a better understanding of crime—crime rates, who the victims are and the factors that can lead to prevention.”

Fifty years ago, political assassinations devastated the country, random robberies dominated the police, people were rioting in cities, and racial tensions were growing during a time of the Civil Rights Movement. Clearly, community relations with police and discrimination remain a concern, but crime looks different in many ways today.

Now police are dealing with mass shootings, infiltration of gangs, and criminals lurking online. Officers are responding to more mentally ill individuals who were moved out of institutions. Currently, about one-quarter of all police shootings involve a person who displays some kind of mental illness, said Darryl De Sousa, deputy police chief of the Baltimore Police Department, speaking at the event. Police are not adequately educated on how to handle these situations and more training is needed, he said.

Phil Cook, a panelist and professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C., addressed the changing landscape of guns and gun violence. While there has been a shift from rifles to more handguns, firearms are increasingly in the hands of fewer Americans—about 22 percent. At the same time, homicides in cities have been cut in half since the 1990s and property crime has plummeted.

Although cities are safer, there was an uptick in murders in 2015 that Cook said is “very worrisome.” He suggested more research is needed on the huge public health issue of gun violence as the leading cause of death for young African American males.

The experts agreed technology is helping address crime—from increased surveillance, to expanded crime data bases, to 911 systems and computers that help law enforcement be more efficient. Dash cameras and body-worn cams also hold officers accountable on the job—something De Sousa said he embraces.

Jonathan Caulkins, professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, explained the dramatic spike in drug use and arrests beginning in the 1970s. Now police face opioid addiction problems and uncertainty associated with the legalization of marijuana in many states. Nearly 60 percent of marijuana is consumed by individuals with less than a high school education and 80 percent by heavy users, compared to just 7 percent by college-educated graduates with no substance abuse disorder, said Caulkins.

As drug transactions move to social networks, there is less crime involved with drug sales, but at the same time globalization is hurting the ability of law enforcement to tighten the supply of drugs, he added.

Some politicians—back then and today—are calling for more law and order. “It reminds me that the more things change, the more they say the same,” said Marcotte.

As a result of the commission’s work in the 1960s, SPA Professor and justice and crime expert, Lynn Addington added that the national crime survey was created and criminal justice as a scholarly discipline was established.

This event was organized by SPA’s Washington Institute for Public Affairs Research. For more information about the Washington Institute for Public Affairs Research, visit: