Q&A: ASU Law professor discusses focus of major new report on criminal justice reform

November 9, 2017

The Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University has published an in-depth new report titled “Reforming Criminal Justice.” The four-volume, 57-chapter publication, which was the culmination of a yearlong collaboration involving 150 of the nation’s foremost academics, was directed by Erik Luna, ASU Law Amelia D. Lewis Professor of Constitutional and Criminal Law, and made possible by a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.

The report was unveiled Oct. 26 at a national summit in Washington, D.C., titled “Advancing Justice: An Agenda for Human Dignity and Public Safety.” Hosted by the Charles Koch Institute, the summit featured leading academics, members of law enforcement, community advocates, media figures and other influencers to discuss the most urgent priorities for criminal justice reform. Professor Erik Luna speaks with Vikrant Reddy Professor Erik Luna speaks with Vikrant Reddy at the Advancing Justice conference in Washington, D.C. Download Full Image

At the summit, Luna discussed the report and answered questions from Vikrant Reddy, a senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute.

Question: What is this project, exactly? I know it’s a book, but give me some more details. What’s the book about?

Answer: “Reforming Criminal Justice” is a four-volume report authored and reviewed by scores of leading scholars in criminal law and other disciplines.

The contributions to this report describe the need for reform in particular areas of American criminal justice and suggest policy recommendations to achieve such change.

In particular, the report seeks to make the relevant law and literature accessible to those who might use this information in discussing and implementing criminal justice reforms.

The report’s primary audience includes those groups and individuals who can effect change either directly or indirectly — like the attendees at today’s summit — but also the average citizen who happens to be interested in criminal justice reform.

The goal is to fortify reform efforts currently afoot in the United States with the research and analysis of respected academics.

In this way, the report hopes to increase the likelihood of success when worthwhile reforms are debated, put to a vote or otherwise considered for action, and implemented in a criminal justice system.

By connecting the world of academics with real-world policy and practice, it is hoped that the report will help bridge the wide gap between scholarship on the books and the reform of criminal justice on the ground.

Q: Are the authors all lawyers (just like the two of us), or have you recruited authors from other disciplines too?

A: Most definitely — the participants came from numerous disciplines: criminology and criminal justice, economics and statistics, sociology and social work, psychology and psychiatry, public administration and health policy, philosophy and political science, and so on.

To be sure, there are a lot of law professors involved, which is unsurprising given the endeavor — seeking to reform a system of law and legal policy.

But many of the legal scholars have PhDs in allied fields and are considered experts in disciplines besides law.

And you have to keep in mind that law is inherently parasitic — think of law and economics, for instance, and law and psychology — and law professors who specialize in criminal justice may be the most interdisciplinary of them all.

Q: Sometimes academics are used to only writing for each other. How are you ensuring that this book will have a wider audience and actually be useful in the policy-making community?

A: You’re absolutely right. Traditionally, academic authors have written to themselves — that is, to other criminal justice scholars — not to the public or even to policymakers, professionals, or policy analysts interested in criminal justice.

As a result, academic scholarship has tended to be inaccessible in the sense that it is dense, filled with jargon, and, as a general rule, painful to read and unfriendly to normal human beings. Oftentimes scholarly works are physically inaccessible as well, published by academic presses and journals and buried in libraries or hidden behind paywalls.

The report is specifically designed to counter this — it is intended to be accessible in the dual sense that it is readily available to everyone, through our dedicated website, and that the prose is not loaded with legalese or its nerdy cousin, academese.

We hope the report can help the criminal justice reform movement in perhaps its most daunting task, namely, the gap in knowledge that exists among the general public and even among many government actors. Most people tend to be unaware of the character and quantity of crime, the scope of criminal law, the rules of criminal procedure, the reality of pretrial and trial proceedings, the nature of sentencing schemes and their severity, and the lasting consequences of conviction and incarceration. What is needed is a means to help people grasp the system’s workings and its many, interrelated problems, so Americans and their representatives can have a full and thoughtful discussion of possible solutions.

This is where academics have a role to play. After all, our work is fundamentally all about reform. Criminal justice scholars spend most of their time studying, critically analyzing, and writing at length about crime, punishment, and processes, with an eye toward providing greater understanding of the criminal justice system and proposing changes to that system. Not least of all, our primary university responsibility is to teach — and my hope is that the experience of our day job, teaching about the complexities of criminal justice, allows us to help the American policymakers and the public understand these issues as well.

Q: I want to ask you two questions about things academics know that other people don’t. First, what’s an example of something that is widely agreed-upon in the academic community that politicians don’t fully appreciate? Secondly — and this may be harder — what’s an example of something that is widely agreed-upon in the academic community that criminal justice reform advocates don’t fully appreciate?

A: As to the first question, I would point to the really exceptional chapters in the report on reasons why we punish in the first place. Politicians often assume that more incarceration equals more deterrence, but the empirical data does not back that up. As Daniel Nagin concludes in his chapter on deterrence, lengthy prison sentences cannot be justified on the basis of crimes prevented by deterrence, and the empirical evidence does not support the idea that harsh mandatory sentences have a meaningful deterrent effect. In fact, Shawn Bushway’s chapter on incapacitation shows that it is difficult if not impossible to justify harsh sentences based on the incapacitative effect of incarceration. If anything, the case for lengthy prison sentences must rest on retributive considerations, but if you read Jeffrie Murphy’s chapter on retribution you’ll understand that the theory of just deserts does not justify draconian sentences, particularly mandatory punishments. More than anything else, retribution provides a brake on sentencing, not a gas pedal. Pass your new lengthy mandatory minimum if you must, Mr. Lawmaker, but stop claiming that it’s necessary for purposes of deterrence, or for incapacitation, or for retribution. 

As for your second question, I might answer with the flip side, which is that incarceration as a sanction is not some vestigial part of the criminal justice system like the human appendix, which can be removed without any real consequence. Incarceration has a role, and no serious academic believes otherwise, save some Scandinavian penal abolitionists. But what is well recognized by both academics and criminal justice reformers is that incarceration too often is the first option rather than a last resort. If we put the resources in empirical supported programs, we can avoid the socioeconomic and human costs of imprisonment through non-custodial sanctions, as discussed in Michael Tonry’s chapter on community punishments. We can also be much smarter in who we incarcerate, as shown in John Monahan’s chapter on risk assessment in sentencing. And when we must imprison individuals, we can do a better job in corrections – the depressing “nothing works” adage attributed to Robert Martinson is not true today. Read Frank Cullen’s chapter on correctional rehabilitation. There are things that work, evidence-based prison programs that can help reduce recidivism. There are academics out there who are doing the research – what we need to do is to bridge the gap between academics and real-world reform, and this report hopes to begin this process.  

Q: OK, my last question is the most important one: If somebody wants a copy of this book, how do they get one?

A: It’s all available for free, online at academyforjustice.org.

Senior director of communications, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law


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ASU Foundation volunteers at St. Vincent de Paul to prepare food, better lives

November 9, 2017

Fundraisers from the ASU Foundation welcomed in the month of November by volunteering at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Arizona to prepare food and spruce up the organization’s Phoenix site — furthering the foundation's commitment to improving lives across the Phoenix community.

Volunteers joined forces with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Arizona on Nov. 3 to pack more than 1,500 sack lunches, prepare 250 pounds of potatoes for meals, distribute resources — including toiletries kits and clothing to hundreds of individuals in need — and paint 15 walls.

“The ASU Foundation is an organization that is committed to serving our community, and this is a great example of doing exactly that,” said Gretchen Buhlig, who organized the event.

Buhlig was appointed CEO of the ASU Foundation in July 2017 and is committed to growing the organization’s presence in the community as she continues to lead Campaign ASU 2020, an effort to generate at least $1.5 billion in support for ASU.

“I’ll always be asking our team and myself: ‘How can we stay focused on how we better other lives, both on and off campus?’” Buhlig said.

The foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises private support for Arizona State University’s educational priorities, is one of five subsidiaries of ASU Enterprise Partners. Employees from across ASU Enterprise Partners joined in the foundation volunteer day.

Buhlig added that she is proud of her team for serving such a great cause.

“Considering that 90 percent of the work done at St. Vincent de Paul is done by the community, I believed it was critical for us as an organization to be a part of the larger effort,” she said.

Every year, St. Vincent de Paul — an international nonprofit dedicated to serving the poor — ensures hundreds of families have warm meals, clothing and a safe space where children can study and play. Recently, aided by private support, professors in ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business worked closely with the organization to improve every step of their supply chain.

“The service project was truly inspirational for me,” said Rebecca Herrera, coordinator of scholarship programs at the foundation. “I was raised to give back to others, and I quickly realized there’s a lot more I can do to help my community.”

Creating partnerships throughout the community in an effort to magnify the impact of its volunteer efforts is another goal for the ASU Foundation.

“I firmly believe that fundraising is more powerful when we team up together. I look forward for the two organizations to work together again and to be an influential part of our communities,” Buhlig said.

Aza Issifu, project manager in ASU Enterprise Partners’ communication department, said, “Being a part of the foundation and getting the opportunity to serve our community in such an active way is truly incredible.”

Enhancing the ASU community’s local impact and social embeddedness is part of the university’s mission. Programs across campus partner with local organizations in a variety of fields, including at the College of Public Service and Community Solutions, where students and faculty team up with St. Vincent de Paul.

“It’s a partnership that only continues to strengthen,” said Dale Larsen, professor of practice and honors faculty at the college. “The college hosts an annual Day of Service each fall for 100-150 student and faculty volunteers, who are assigned all kinds of tasks [at St. Vincent de Paul], including their two urban farms and indoor residential living units.”

In addition to the service days, the college also supports a project manager at St. Vincent de Paul and student internships arranged by sponsoring schools.

ASU Foundation and St. Vincent de Paul were equally thrilled about the turnout of the service. Irma Leyendecker, the volunteer services manager for St. Vincent de Paul, said they truly appreciate the support and partnership.

“St. Vincent de Paul couldn’t do all that it does without the help of partners like the Foundation and ASU,” she said. 

Written by Raneem Hamad, student writer, ASU Enterprise Partners


Top photo: ASU Enterprise Partners staff members painted 15 walls as part of a November day of service at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Arizona.