Justice is (NOT) blind

Finding the best routes to predicting, preventing and atoning for crime is a thorny issue. Experimental criminologists such as Lawrence Sherman, recently appointed as the fourth Wolfson Professor at the University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology, see randomised field trials as the shortest path to discovering the answers.

This was the first successful demonstration that police patrol prevents crime. It transformed policing in the US away from random patrol to hot-spot patrol,

Professor Sherman

Randomised trials have been a mainstay of testing drugs and surgery in medicine for decades. Remarkably, experimental criminologists have also been applying this gold standard to the testing of crime prevention theories. The results are providing police forces and probationary services worldwide with the means to improve their effectiveness.

For the past 30 years, Professor Sherman has been breaking new ground in crime prevention experiments. In the USA, his work identifying crime ‘hot-spots’ in cities, for example, discovered that a small fraction of street corners generated most of the crime in the city. Through randomised field trials, he found that directing increased police patrol time to these areas substantially reduced violence and disorder, as measured by independent observers working incognito in the hot spots. ‘This was the first successful demonstration that police patrol prevents crime. It transformed policing in the US away from random patrol to hot-spot patrol,’ says Professor Sherman, who moved here in April from the University of Pennsylvania.

His more recent randomised field experiments in Australia and the UK have tackled the issue of ‘restorative justice’ – in which the offender comes face to face with the victim to account for the crime. ‘The discussion between victim and offender almost always included an apology, which crime victims say they desperately want and don’t get in the criminal justice system,’ says Professor Sherman. The randomised trials test whether the face-to-face meetings, led mostly by police officers, can help victims and reduce re-offending. The results on crime are currently being collated, but the results for victims show major reductions in post-traumatic stress symptoms. They also show more offenders accepting responsibility for their crimes.

‘Including all experiments looking at the number of offences brought to justice,’ says Professor Sherman, ‘it turns out that one of the most powerful things restorative justice can do when it’s an alternative to prosecution is to increase the number of cases successfully resolved. Given the high rate of case dismissal as a result of witnesses not turning up at court after long delays, restorative justice meetings yield two to three times better odds that an offender who’s been arrested for an offence will admit the crime and accept some form of justice.’

His new post at Cambridge will allow Professor Sherman to intensify his research on crime prevention strategies and restorative justice in the UK. The Institute of Criminology already has a worldwide reputation in experimental methods, as well as in other ways of studying crime. Professor Sherman’s appointment builds on its prestigious research strengths and the excellence of its academic staff. He succeeds Professor Sir Anthony Bottoms, who retired from the Wolfson Professorship in October 2006, and continues his work in building bridges to the police, prison and probation services.

For more information on the Institute of Criminology, please go to www.crim.cam.ac.uk


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