Jeffrey L. Sedgwick, Acting Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs
National Institute of Justice Annual Conference
July 22, 2008
Thank you, David [Hagy]. It’s a pleasure to be here.
I want to take just a moment, before I begin, to thank David and the very capable staff of NIJ for putting this conference together. As anyone who has been involved in organizing a conference knows, it’s a mammoth job. For every one thing that the participants see, there are at least a dozen things that go on behind the scenes. This is one of the biggest OJP events of the year, and NIJ has had to manage countless details and moving parts, which they’ve done with their usual professionalism. My thanks to everyone in NIJ for a job well done.
I also want to express my appreciation to David for his leadership and for being a top-notch colleague. As many of you know, David was the Deputy Assistant Attorney General of OJP before President Bush appointed him to head NIJ. While he was managing those duties, I was director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Between the two of us, we’ve held a wide range of posts and perspectives in OJP. Our working relationship goes back several years, and it’s one that has been based on mutual respect, mutual trust, and a shared commitment to the very important mission of OJP. David, it’s been a pleasure and an honor to work with you, and I look forward to continuing our work together as we finish out our terms.
During my time at OJP, both as Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics and as Acting Assistant Attorney General, I’ve seen and been part of many things of which I’m very proud – new partnerships, expanded resources, better data. But one of the most exciting developments I’ve seen is a stronger relationship between researchers, scientists, technologists, and practitioners.
We’re all aware of the historic tension between research and practice in the criminal justice field. We know that researchers are often accused of being too theoretical and unwilling to commit to a policy course. And practitioners get blamed for not appreciating the nuances and complexities of research.
Of course, we are not alone in trying to balance research and practice. In fact, President Harry Truman recognized how frustrating this tension can be when he said, “Give me a one-armed economist!” This plain speaking President liked clear recommendations and not a long list of the advantages and disadvantages of a particular course of action.
When it comes to criminal justice issues, I would submit it’s not always unhealthy to have this tension between research and practice. Justice system professionals are right to want research findings distilled so that they can apply them in the real world. Researchers, in turn, are right to give the whole story, which rarely, if ever, is as tidy as we would like it to be. The tension exists because both sides are trying to do their best.
Frankly, I’m not sure it’s realistic, or even desirable, to eliminate that tension. I think the better alternative – and this is the trend I’ve observed – is to bring about a greater respect between the two disciplines. And this is done by bringing researchers and practitioners together from the beginning.
In a few moments, we’re going to recognize men and women who were central to NIJ’s groundbreaking study on the role of DNA in solving property crimes. That study is a perfect example of how we’re bringing practitioners and researchers together. Let me tell you a little about it.
We know from previous studies that offenders who commit property crimes have very high recidivism rates. Some of the most prolific burglars, for instance, commit hundreds of crimes a year. We’ve also seen that their crimes can escalate into more serious and violent offenses.
For example, a New York State study of the first 1,000 hits on the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, found that the vast majority were linked to homicide and rape. But of those, 82 percent of offenders were already in the database as a result of a prior conviction for crimes such as burglary or drug-related offenses. And a Florida study found that 52 percent of hits against murder and sexual assault cases matched individuals who had prior convictions for burglary.
Several years ago, under the President’s DNA Initiative, we supported demonstration projects in Miami and Palm Beach, Florida and New York City to examine the public safety benefits of analyzing DNA from property crimes. We got some interesting results. In the two Florida sites, for example, more than half of the CODIS hits came from evidence collected at burglary scenes. In New York, DNA profiles collected at burglary scenes identified several pattern burglaries and many were linked to other unsolved cases. The obvious conclusion from these studies is that DNA collected at the scene of so-called minor crimes can have major public safety benefits.
So we decided it was time to take the next step – to see whether a concentrated effort to collect DNA in property crime cases is a wise use of resources. This was a bit of a departure from convention. Most people think of DNA evidence as a tool for solving violent crimes such as murder and rape, not as a means for catching burglars and thieves. NIJ decided to challenge that thinking.
What we did was to fund efforts in five jurisdictions to apply DNA evidence collection to crimes such as burglary and theft from automobiles, and then evaluated those efforts over a period of almost two years. The sites were Denver, Topeka, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Orange County, California.
Some of the cases from these five sites are particularly interesting. In Denver, for instance, a homeowner punched a man burglarizing his home. The punch drew blood, which the police used to identify and arrest the offender. Turns out, he had left DNA evidence at the scene of another crime, where he had taken time to try a piece of chocolate.
Believe it or not, other burglars stopped and had a bite to eat while they were stealing. The police were able to use DNA from the saliva to make the IDs and arrests. A guy in Los Angeles even stopped mid-crime to answer a knock at the door, then realized his mistake. His DNA, combined with the obvious eyewitness testimony, helped to secure his arrest.
It turns out that when DNA was used in investigating property crimes, twice as many suspects were identified and more than twice as many cases were accepted for prosecution. Not only that, but suspects identified by DNA had at least twice as many prior felony arrests and convictions as those identified by traditional investigations. This means that using DNA evidence with property crimes can lead to the arrest of offenders with very serious criminal histories. We know that many property crime offenders have committed or will go on to commit more serious offenses. Apprehending more of them now can have tremendous benefits for the future.
The study also showed that police are able to assume a greater role in collecting DNA evidence and apprehending offenders identified by DNA provided that they are adequately trained. Researchers observed that suspects are just as likely to be identified when biological material is collected by patrol officers as when it’s gathered by forensic technicians.
These findings show that DNA evidence has value well beyond its ability to help solve violent crimes and will add a new dimension to the way law enforcement uses it in the future.
I want to thank you all for your time and to tell you know how much we in OJP appreciate everything you do to strengthen our knowledge of what works in fighting crime and keeping our communities safe.
Thank you, and enjoy the rest of the conference.