Crime Stopper

Lawrence Sherman

An advisor to Philadelphia's top cop and to the wife of Britain's prime minister, Lawrence Sherman, seen here in front of the Jerry Lee Center for Criminology, knows something about how to stop crime before it happens.

“I’m glad I put your coat in this closet. It reminds me that I promised to get this book off to Cherie.” Lawrence Sherman, director of the Jerry Lee Center for Criminology, has lots of friends in high places these days.

Locally, Sherman was known for his close relationship with former Police Commissioner John Timoney. But it turns out he’s made friends across the pond as well, with Cherie Booth, a British magistrate who happens to be the wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Booth was impressed by his research on the effectiveness of a new form of sentencing known as “restorative justice,” in which offenders and victims meet to negotiate ways to repair the harm done by the offender.

That research, done in Australia, prompted Britain’s high court to okay a new controlled experiment testing restorative justice’s effectiveness compared to traditional sentencing methods. The experiment has the official blessing of Harry Woolf, the lord chief justice of England and Wales.

Lawrence Sherman

The director of the Jerry Lee Center for Criminology has two new projects—one in England and one right here in the Philadelphia region—that bring academic know-how to the real world of crime and punishment.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Another new project at the Jerry Lee Center is based right here in Philadelphia, funded by a $1 million grant from the state’s Community Revitalization Program. The grant will allow the center to create a single, computerized system that will track the status of offenders after they are released from prison.

The system is the cornerstone of a program called OUTREACH—Offender Unified Tracking for Rehabilitation, Enforcement and Community Help. It’s one more step on the road to more effective and humane methods to prevent and reduce crime, a goal Sherman has pursued for more than 30 years. We spoke with him about his work and the Pennsylvania project recently.

Q. What is the purpose of this program?
The purpose is to provide a lot more help to [offenders as they are released from prison] to enable them to lead law-abiding lives.

…There’s just been no systematic [information technology] effort to think about who is the offending population or the potential offending population, even of adults in this city, and how to make sense out of what the risks are in a statistically reliable way so we could justify saying, Salvation Army, if you can help one person coming out of prison this week, it should be John Doe. Can you be there when John gets off the bus?

Q. What types of offenders is this project targeting?
Our focus is on people who are most at risk of committing serious crimes, because that has the greatest potential for reducing harm in a community. And that is also the greatest challenge.

I hope that this is a long enough effort, 10 or 20 years, so that we can come up with some research evidence that shows us what is the best investment of private and public resources. But I don’t think we’ll be able to figure that out unless we create the partnerships and put together the information systems that will allow us to have the equivalent of the weekly strategy session that’s focusing on one person at a time of those who are moving into the highest-risk categories week by week.

Unfortunately, in most criminal justice systems, there’s very little distinction made between those who are likely [to repeat] and those who are not. We had prior experiments that showed that if you have people who you have good reason to believe are active offenders, special police units are able to catch them in the act, get them convicted and get them off the streets. One way or the other, we want to reduce the risk. Social services come first. If they don’t work, there’s law enforcement.

Q. What sort of services will this grant help fund?
This grant is a development grant. It’s going to help us build the partnerships. Ex-offenders, people coming out of the criminal justice system, they’re not getting connected to services. …Moreover, we can do evaluations of these services. We can set up controlled trials using the best research techniques to determine exactly what the cost-effectiveness of different strategies might be. This is exactly the kind of money the British government has given us to work over there to evaluate restorative justice.

This money, I want to stress, is for developing partnerships, not for paying for services. We’re probably going to be coordinating, in the end, tens of millions of dollars in services if the partnerships are successful.

Q. How did you become interested in researching crime prevention in the first place?
It was in the ’60s, after the Chicago Democratic Convention riots. I became interested in the police riots and the tactics the police used, and I began studying the police at the University of Chicago. The last 30 years have been a progression from studying the police as a problem to studying the crime problems that create police problems and vice versa.

In the last five years I’ve been more interested in the social problems that lead to crime, and that was what led to my report to Congress on what causes crime and what works to reduce it in 1997. That report has been cited in many other countries, and 12 other nations have consulted us specifically [about implementing its recommendations]. Oddly enough, other countries have paid more attention to it than the United States has.

Q. In what way has the U.S. government been slower to respond?
The Congressional committees that requested the report have not made any changes to the laws in the wake of the report. They have made no effort to tie the $4 billion a year in federal spending on crime prevention to what works and what doesn’t. The British government is moving much more rapidly in that direction than the Americans are, which is why we’re doing more work with the British government.

Q. How has your thinking changed on crime, what causes it, and how to prevent it?
Working on the street, riding for thousands of hours in police cars, you see all kinds of problems. One of the problems I saw most often was domestic violence. [My observations] led to one of the first randomized controlled trials ever conducted with police, in Minneapolis in 1980, which led to the finding that arrest worked better than mediation in stopping domestic violence. Later research revealed that arrests backfired in reducing domestic violence in poor communities, but worked in middle-class ones. This was an important finding, that what works in one community doesn’t work in another.

Q. What do you consider the most important outcome of your research?
What’s most important is that it’s changed policies in ways that might reduce injury. The Supreme Court cited our work in its ruling restricting the power of police to kill people, and as a result, killings by police have gone down 50 percent since 1985, when the ruling was issued. It’s had an impact on domestic violence, which has gone down in the years since our research appeared. And with restorative justice, I believe it will have a similar effect. [Sherman’s research in Australia found that restorative justice reduced repeat offenses by 38 percent among those charged with violent crimes.]

Q. What about its impact on relations between the police and minorities?
It’s probably not had as much impact as I would
like. We are doing research that shows that politeness matters, and that if you arrest people politely, they’re less likely to commit more crime than if you don’t. [Former Attorney General] Janet Reno brought me to the FBI Academy to discuss that, and to put it politely, I was not well received.

Q. Is there a common thread to your research?
I think the common thread is that more careful evaluation of what we are doing can move us toward much better results without having to create a police state or lock everybody up. We can find more cost-effective and humane alternatives to preventing crime.

Originally published on March 28, 2002