The Magazine

The Injustice Department

Why was Lawrence Greenfeld fired?

Oct 17, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 05 • By JOSEPH M. BESSETTE
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The New York Times story attracted widespread attention. Democrats in Congress jumped on the opportunity to criticize the administration for suppressing data, and several called for an investigation by Congress's Government Accountability Office or the Department of Justice's inspector general. The Times itself carried several follow-up news stories; Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich mentioned the incident in their respective columns; and numerous major newspapers took the administration to task in their editorials.

It didn't take long for the administration to defend itself by attacking its own appointee and his agency. Just three days after the original Times story ran, a well-known conservative commentator told NPR that "the story from the people that I've talked to is that this has much more to do with a war with the permanent bureaucracy in Washington. The permanent bureaucracy in Washington, not just the Bureau of Justice Statistics but elsewhere, does not like the Bush administration very much. And for months now or years now, BJS . . . [has] been leaking to the mainstream media to embarrass Bush. This has been happening a lot, and so Bush finally clamped down on this guy." A convenient line, especially since Henke will soon appear before a Senate committee considering her nomination to a high-level position in the Department of Homeland Security, but the story is false.

THE BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS is one of the great success stories of the American bureaucracy. Created out of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration of the 1970s, it employs about 50 people, most of whom are experts in collecting, analyzing, and disseminating statistical data on crime and justice. When I was there, a dozen of the employees, fully a third of the professional staff, held Ph.D.s. In some ways it felt more like an academic department than a government agency. The staff were, and are, extraordinarily dedicated to the agency's mission and extraordinarily successful at accomplishing it. While the agency is expected to collect, analyze, and disseminate data on criminal justice issues of importance to whatever administration is in power, it also enjoys a kind of quasi-independent status, as reflected in the fact that it has always been located in a building separate from "main Justice" and that its director is the appointee not of the attorney general but of the president himself, requiring Senate confirmation.

To say that BJS is highly regarded in the criminal justice community is an understatement. With its small staff, it publishes upwards of 50 statistical reports each year, including several thousand spreadsheets with data on every aspect of the criminal justice system: e.g., criminal victimizations, conviction and sentencing data, prisoner and jail counts, death row, recidivism, and justice expenditures. At a time when many academics are criticized for keeping tight control over their data sets, BJS makes available to the public the underlying data for all its studies, allowing researchers to replicate its findings. The BJS website, which the public accesses as many as 20,000 times each day, is a treasure trove of data on virtually every conceivable aspect of crime and justice. Despite the staggering quantity of data that BJS produces, its record of accuracy is unparalleled.

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of BJS data, especially in documenting the leniency of the American criminal justice system and thus pointing the way to crime reduction through tougher punishment (although the agency itself steers clear of editorializing and policy recommendations). It was BJS studies that showed that a third of those convicted of felonies in state courts receive no jail time at sentencing; that nearly everyone in state prisons (93 percent) is a convicted violent offender or convicted recidivist (not the first-time nonviolent offender we hear so much about); that even those convicted of the most serious violent crimes serve what many consider unconscionably short prison terms (e.g., about five years for rape); and that two-thirds of those released from state prisons are arrested for a new crime within three years. For example, when BJS studied 270,000 offenders released from 15 state prisons in 1994, it found that these individuals had been arrested for 4.1 million crimes before their most recent imprisonment and another 744,000 crimes within three years of release. And because only a small fraction of crimes ever result in an arrest, we can reasonably conclude that this one group of offenders likely committed 10 million or more crimes through 1997. This is strong evidence indeed that tougher sentencing of recidivists will bear fruit in lower crime rates.