Improving Criminal Justice Decisions

Michael Serota

Executive Summary

All government decisions matter. But few matter more than those involving the criminal justice system.   These are not easy decisions.  Nor do we expect public officials to always get them right.  But given the high stakes and human consequences involved, we do have a legitimate expectation that these decisions will be made in the right way—that is, rationally, deliberately, and informed by expertise.  For many decades, though, our nation’s criminal justice decisions have been made in the wrong way.  Instead of a careful weighing of costs and benefits, these decisions have been produced through a pathological process in which scholarly expertise has been marginalized.  And the consequences have been horrifying: mass imprisonment concentrated on our most vulnerable populations, and racial disparities that defy belief. 

In a moment of societal reckoning, there is a great deal of political interest in addressing these problems.  To do so, however, our elected officials must focus on making better criminal justice decisions.  Greater reliance by lawmakers on scholarship is an important part of this process.  But so too is a greater effort by academics to make their work accessible to lawmakers.  Reforming Arizona Criminal Justice is that kind of effort.  During the fall of 2019, I engaged with the Arizona criminal justice community to understand the most pressing policy problems in a state that suffers from one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates.  I then asked some of the nation’s leading criminal law scholars to write accessible articles proposing evidence-based solutions for a special issue of the Arizona State Law Journal.  The result is a roadmap for how Arizona’s state and local lawmakers might chart a path forward on a diverse set of criminal policy issues.  Let’s hope they use it.