What does it look like to pursue social justice in the American justice system?
Social justice movements across the US have prompted many to ask that question—and then quickly realize the answer is far more complicated and nuanced than they initially imagined. But that, says Dr. Joseph Allen, shouldn’t deter us from doing the hard work of reevaluating our criminal justice system.
The director of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Chaminade notes that critical research into the justice system is unpacking the actions of law enforcement agencies and how they can develop policies and practices that serve to protect communities while also committing to fairness and transparency.
Unfortunately, Allen notes, there are no quick fixes in this regard.
That’s because injustice isn’t hidden in a single institution or policy—or person. But Allen, who is also an associate professor at Chaminade, believes action research and dialogue across communities can help to drive positive change and highlight constructive and proactive (rather than reactive) solutions.
Allen recently sat down for a conversation on the justice system, the long history of social justice movements in the US and recent changes to the Master of Science in Criminal Justice Studies program that reflect modern developments and academic inquiry around the justice system in America.
How has crime changed over the past few years?
It really hasn’t changed a lot recently. Overall, crime rates are down almost across the board, and they have been on a general decrease over the past 25+ years. The rates of crime we are experiencing today are similar to the rates of the 1960s-1970s. This is hard for most people to reconcile because crime is, more often than not, the lead story on much of our news and media feeds. But, it’s true. Again, everything today is generally low, to begin with. That said, we have seen a slow down in the decreases in aggravated assault and sexual assault — these have leveled off a bit over recent years.
Our official crime data (via the FBI) lags behind about a year or two due to the large data compilation and analysis efforts. So, our most recent data comes from 2019. Data and trends will be interesting to see for 2020 and 2021 when they come out. Due to the pandemic, I expect what could be a noticeable drop in crime overall (as opposed to the general gradual decreases). I then expect that this will “correct” itself a bit in 2021 and increase to “expected” levels.
Early indicators from the recent year and a half point to potential increases in domestic violence, substance abuse, and cases involving mental health. Albeit rare, we have seen some increases in gun and mass or workplace shootings. Lastly, white-collar and computer crimes are becoming more sophisticated and put those of us who are online at increased risk of having our personal information stolen or compromised. Many large corporations, online platforms, and government agencies have been hacked in various ways and are really in a struggle to keep up with digital security concerns. We each need to do our part and be safe when online.
How does social media play a role in criminal justice?
Social media spreads word of events far and wide, especially if the news is sensational. This is good for simple news and awareness, but I think it unnecessarily creates increased levels of fear and anxiety in all of us when it comes to extremely unlikely events. Rare events are taken out of context and we tend to feel more vulnerable. This is in spite of the probabilities of these rare events happening to us being very minuscule. It is good that we learn from these events that are often tragic, but we need to keep in perspective that, again, we’re essentially living 1960s/1970s rates of crime.
How has accountability changed?
With increased information, we become exposed to things that we may not have had in the past. Smartphones and social media have been the driving forces behind the amplification of this effect. To this end, we are all to some extent put under more pressure to act and behave accordingly. More so now than in the past, the criminal justice field has been forced to reflect on its policies and procedures. This has been the most noticeable in law enforcement due to several high-profile national cases. To say that many or even most of these cases were as “cut and dried” as some think, I believe is an understatement, but the truth of the reality is that there is almost always something to learn about, clarify, or update professional training when it comes to policies and procedures. These unfortunate incidents have made jurisdictions and agencies reevaluate legal policy and sometimes change procedures, especially when engaging citizens physically.
As for body-worn cameras (BWC), when I last studied the topic, a few things struck me as interesting. First, there was hesitation among most officers when first using body cameras (e.g., some felt that they would not react as instinctively and that the camera may put them at risk). Second, after using the cameras and getting used to them, most officers welcomed their use (e.g., could corroborate evidence, fewer complaints, less unfounded lawsuits). Third, everyone acts a bit “better” when they know the camera is on, both the officer(s) AND the individuals being engaged by the officer; in other words, things tend to not escalate as much with cameras in use. Lastly, and probably most importantly, is that the public felt that by putting BWCs on officers, there would be more transparency. This last point is vital when it comes to the citizenry trusting those charged with enforcing and carrying out the law.
When it comes to law enforcement, does a “bad egg” reflect that entire organization?
Law enforcement is not a profession for the weary. You must be prepared to face dangerous situations and dangerous people. When these things come together, the likelihood of someone having been victimized and there is a confrontation with police increases, and sometimes things can escalate. Mistakes can happen, whether it be the officer’s decision or following a bad policy/procedure, or something that is unclear or leaves a lot to interpretation. The leaders in our law enforcement field definitely feel the pressure to “get it right.” And I think that the vast, vast majority of the rank and file feel the same way, too. So, going back to the question, “does one bad egg [or incident] reflect the rest of the force?” To this, I say unequivocally, “Absolutely not.” No field is perfect, and you will always have bad actors or unfortunate incidents. To some extent, and rightfully so, I think that law enforcement gets put under the microscope at a higher magnification due to the core elements of being representatives of the law who are charged with protecting the public and property and serving the citizenry. In terms of government agencies and performance, the criminal justice system/field needs to continue to evolve and change so that integrity and trust are maintained, and results are shown. The police and other law enforcement agencies are not “off-the-charts bad” when it comes to efficiency, decision-making, and leadership. Like any other government agency and oversight, some cases bring about much-needed change and we all should agree that the law should apply to everyone equally, with law enforcement being held to the highest standard.
Over the past few years, there has been more interest in criminology and criminal justice programs—why do you think that is?
The main thing that I see from students and those entering the criminology and criminal justice field is a desire to help make communities safer and our society a better place. The range of positions run the gamut from law enforcement to legal work to corrections and treatment to things like working with underserved or marginalized populations (e.g., children, impoverished, homeless, substance abusers, offenders looking to get back on the right path). Also, there is always the presence of preventing people from becoming victims of crime and to help them if they do end up being victimized. So, prevention and treatment efforts across-the-board and increased investigation/legal efforts are stressed in order that we have less crime to begin with, that the crime we do have is accounted for and there is a proper balance of treatment and justice for offenders in order to have less repeat offending in the future.
Those who are looking at the field nowadays I think feel a bit more extra pressure to hold their positions with the highest level of integrity. Additionally, I feel some who have entered the field recently or are looking to enter the field in the future are also looking to be part of changing things for the better. For what it’s worth, I think now and going forward is a great time for going into the field. There will continue to be bumps in the road, but our students will undoubtedly be part of needed changes in the system.
Chaminade’s Criminology and Criminal Justice department updated its master’s program (M.S. Criminal Justice Studies). How does the new curriculum respond to the current criminal justice environment and community needs?
During this past year, we updated our Master’s degree program in CJ. Previously, it was known as the “Master of Science in Criminal Justice Administration.” It is now the “Master of Science in Criminal Justice Studies.” In general terms, we’ve made our curriculum more contemporary with a focus on not just the advanced pillars of the field, but also on contemporary issues that are entrenched in the criminal justice landscape today—ethics, research, civil rights, forensic psychology, terrorism, cybercrime and trauma and crisis intervention. The field is broadening from law and order to a sort of safety net for a host of social issues; those in the field, especially on the frontlines, dealing with a wider array of matters than in the past. This also includes more emphasis on the front-end (prevention efforts) and the back-end (treatment and reintegration). We feel that our curriculum better reflects these shifts in the field.
Lastly, on a practical note, a master’s degree gives students a leg up when they enter the field and during their careers. As things in the field open up as the mass exodus of the Baby Boomer generation continues to occur, advanced degrees will separate one from their peers even more. For entree into the field, a master’s degree will often help in terms of being able to substitute for years of experience (e.g., common is equivalent to 2-3 years of experience). Then, once in the field, opportunities that require or desire a master’s degree will come up; moreover, advancement and promotion in certain fields can get pushed up or given advantages because of the advanced degree. As time goes on and one becomes more entrenched in their career, a master’s degree in today’s work field is seen as a must if one is being considered for higher-level positions (e.g., director, supervisory, managerial). I feel that the “payback” or return on investment from obtaining a master’s degree is high in the long run for graduates; roughly a little over a year of studies will put the graduate in an advantaged position for the rest of their careers.