Jeffrey L. Sedgwick, Acting Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs
SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics 2008 Winter Membership Group Meeting
January 23, 2008
Thank you, Ron. I had the pleasure of addressing you at last year’s conference, and it’s nice to be back.
As you may have heard, I have a new job. I was thrilled when I got the news that President Bush had named me Acting Assistant Attorney General. . . until I found out that it was actually just a plot hatched by the BJS staff to get me out of the office. Something about a collective New Year’s resolution to lose dead weight.
I’m both excited and humbled by the opportunity to help lead OJP and to work with you to address the many challenges related to criminal justice and public safety. Chief among them is fighting violent crime and doing so with a budget that few of you are particularly pleased about.
You’re a well-informed audience. You’ve likely seen our FY 2008 appropriations and you will hear more detail about them later this morning from SEARCH staff. At a time like this, we must remain calm. We should all recall that one of the advantages of working in an agency like the Office of Justice Programs is the flexibility we have to design programs that meet the needs of our stakeholders.
For example, last year, in response to rising crime rates in some cities, we carved $75 million out of our budget to help these communities address the crime issues they are facing. That money is being used to support local and state violent crime task forces address those issues from a strategic, rather than a reflexive, standpoint.
Given the need for strict fiscal discipline in these tight times, we have to be creative. We also have to be reasoned and deliberate. But I would argue that exercising our creativity while relying on reason will serve us well in the long run.
When the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report data were released for 2005 and 2006, many people turned their backs on this reasoned approach. To be sure, some cities showed slightly higher rates of crime and violence. But overall those upticks were hardly dramatic, nor were they by any means universal. Rather than focusing on what was happening in those particular cities, we saw a tendency to mischaracterize those small spikes as “a gathering storm” or “an alarming trend,” when in fact the real trend over the past several years is toward historic lows in crime rates. [It was a little like saying the New England Patriots are becoming a bad team after having a close game.] (this is contingent on the outcome of the playoffs!)
New data show that concerns about a major violent crime increase were premature. UCR data from the first half of 2007 show an almost 2 percent drop in violent crime from last year, and BJS’ National Crime Victimization Survey actually shows that urban and suburban crime rates from 2005 to 2006 were stable.
Nevertheless, we take seriously the experiences of those communities that were unfortunately left outside the overall downward trend; and the $75 million that we awarded last year was a reflection of how seriously we take the problems in those affected communities. Yet we do need to beware another kind of trend, namely, a trend away from relying on sound empirical data to back up our criminal justice policies. Accurate benchmarks are the foundation of good policy.
Now you may be thinking, “of course a stats guy would say that.” But I think you’ll all agree with me on the importance of having citizens, policymakers, and local leaders looking at the same facts when they debate matters of justice in our society.
Issues of crime and public safety inspire tremendous passion, and it’s easy to see how messages can become distorted, especially when they become bound up with politics and good intentions. Our challenge – the challenge of each of us in this room – is to remain objective in our approach to understanding crime and justice issues while at the same time fully appreciating the concerns of citizens who are face-to-face with problems in their communities.
I was one of several Justice Department representatives who traveled the country recently to hear from local leaders and law enforcement officials about the problems their communities were facing. We wanted to find out what was contributing to crime increases in some areas.
As you’d expect, we heard that each city had its own set of unique issues. At the same time, we identified several underlying themes. Juvenile violence was becoming more serious, with a younger population of offenders committing more violent acts. Gang members as young as 12 and 13 were carrying firearms and using them precipitately and indiscriminately. Re-entering felons were exerting harmful influence on young people through a kind of informal criminal mentoring system – certainly not the kind of mentoring system we’d like to see.
Evidence of some of these problems had been ratified through data, but much of it was based purely on observation. Granted, observation from the best of sources – law enforcement professionals on the front lines. But no matter how compelling such anecdotal evidence may be for some observers, we must build our policy on an even more rigorous foundation of accurate, objective information. This is where we can be of service – by helping to determine where the problems are and what underlies them. In short, by matching the informed observations of law enforcement professionals with careful and thorough measurement, we get the most accurate picture of what is happening on the ground.
Because successful crime-fighting depends on the wise allocation of resources, I see research and the gathering of data as two of our most important responsibilities at OJP. During a time of budget belt-tightening, it’s even more critical that we focus our resources where they’re needed most.
One of the chief targets of our resources is information sharing technology. I know you share my belief that by taking advantage of available technologies, we can become much more efficient in our ability to collect and analyze criminal justice information.
SEARCH has been and continues to be a valued partner to OJP in this effort. During breakout sessions tomorrow, your staff will describe national technical assistance efforts in the information sharing, privacy and IT security areas.
BJS has enjoyed a longstanding partnership with SEARCH as well. For the last 18 years, the joint BJS-SEARCH survey of criminal justice information systems has given us vital information about state central repositories and criminal history records. This year’s new online, Web-based version of the survey, under the direction of Owen Greenspan, promises to provide even more useful and comprehensive information.
SEARCH has also been instrumental in the success of our National Criminal History Improvement Program and most certainly will be instrumental in our implementation of the new NICS improvement legislation that you will hear about later today from Justice Department staff including Lisa Vincent from the FBI, Frank Campbell from the Office of Legal Policy and BJS’s Gerry Ramker.
Your organization has also been instrumental in the Department’s Global Justice initiatives, and has helped the States, territories and Federal agencies make tremendous progress in harnessing technological tools to improve the administration of criminal justice at all levels of government. And beyond addressing all the machinery, the networks and interfaces, SEARCH has also helped ensure our efforts continue to emphasize policy concerns for data quality and individual privacy.
Such public-private partnerships are vital in today’s world. Since 9/11, we’ve embarked on an unprecedented journey to link public safety, homeland security, and private sector entities together in an effort to speed the flow of information and to improve the quality of criminal and anti-terrorist intelligence while respecting individual privacy. The urgency of that mission is evidenced by the President’s National Strategy for Information Sharing, released in October. But our ability to complete that journey and to make seamless data sharing a reality will depend on the soundness of the information that we collect and share.
So, good data are critically important to targeting limited resources wherever you sit in our governmental structure. And accurate record-keeping is central to effective crime-fighting and to protecting our nation’s security. Finally, supportive public-private sector partnerships are an essential element of this mission.
I’d like us to continue to work together to make sure that the information we gather and study is the most useful and appropriate to the task, and that the technologies we utilize for storing and sharing it are the most effective they can be.
To that end, I look forward to hearing more from you about ways that we can continue to strengthen our partnership.