Preparing for the Future: Criminal Justice in 2040
by Nancy M. Ritter
What will criminal justice look like in 2040?
There’s no question that terrorism, the growth of
multicultural populations, massive migration, upheavals
in age-composition demographics, technological developments,
and globalization over the next three or more decades will
affect the world’s criminal justice systems. But how?
What forces will have the greatest influence?
Weighing in on these questions are three leading criminal
- Bryan J. Vila, former chief of the Office
of Justice Programs’ National Institute of Justice’s
Crime Control and Prevention Research Division and now
a professor at Washington State University, emphasizes
the need to understand the evolution—or more accurately,
the coevolution—of crime and crime fighting.
- Christopher E. Stone, Daniel and Florence
Guggenheim Professor of the Practice of Criminal Justice
at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of
Government, believes that a new global, professional culture
will influence the world’s criminal justice systems
in the decades to come.
- David Weisburd, professor of criminology
at the University of Maryland and Jerusalem’s Hebrew
University Law School, says that how criminal justice
looks in 2040 will largely depend on the research path
we take: Will developments in policies and technologies
be based on clinical experience or on evidence?
The Coevolution of Crime and Justice
Bryan Vila observes that criminals, like viruses, evolve
over time and change as their potential victims take preventive
measures. For example, Vila notes, as people install steering
wheel locks or alarm systems to combat auto theft, thieves
respond by using devices that neutralize such security systems.
Regardless of such coevolution across the wide range of
crimes, crime fighting, Vila says, will continue
to fall into three categories: reducing the opportunity
for crime, changing the motivation of people who commit
crimes, and altering people’s fundamental values—including
nurturing positive values in young children—to minimize
the likelihood of future criminal behavior.
All this will have to be done within the context of changing
demographics. As 2040 approaches, the proportion of males
aged 15 to 29—traditionally, the most crime-prone group—will
decline slightly, and the percentage of the over-30 population
(and particularly those over 65) will increase substantially.
The impact? “There will be more people to be either
victims or solutions,” Vila observes. For example,
he explains, an increase in the elderly population could
result in greater victimization, but it could also lead
to more elderly people using their discretionary time to
report crime and guide children.
Technological advances will also have a great influence
on crime fighting. Developments in surveillance, biometrics,
DNA analysis, and radio frequency identification microchips
will enhance crime prevention and crime solving. Increasingly
sophisticated intelligence databases will likely be used
not only by police officers and analysts, but by the general
public—as is now common with sex offender registries.
The future will also bring improvements in interoperability
systems that allow officials to talk electronically to one
another, particularly during emergencies. And, Vila concludes,
better connection among people and agencies will lead to
a decrease in the attractiveness and vulnerability of crime
Chris Stone predicts that global trends will play a significant
role in how criminal justice is delivered throughout the
world in 2040. Stone points to the dramatic growth in the
number of foreign-born Americans and suggests that increasing
diversity in populations will have a significant impact
not only in the United States but worldwide.
Such growth has the potential for disharmony, Stone notes.
In South Africa, for example, the court system now recognizes
11 official languages. As a result, lawyers may speak one
language, the judge another, and the defendant, a third.
Often, the only two people in the courtroom speaking the
same language are the victim and defendant—with the
judge, prosecutor, and defense lawyer relying on interpreters.
The lack of homogeneity extends beyond language to societal
norms and expectations. What will foreign-born Americans
expect of the U.S. justice system, given their experiences
in their native countries? How will they regard the roles
of the defense lawyer, prosecutor, and judge? Answers to
these questions will shape the face of criminal justice
in the decades to come.
Stone believes that a new professional culture is spreading
through justice systems worldwide across five vectors:
Bilateral transfer of information between countries.
The bilateral transfer of information can lead to changes
in a country’s criminal justice system. For example,
a delegation funded by the U.S. Agency for International
Development travels to China to discuss prosecution systems.
Thereafter, the Chinese host delegations from Germany and
Australia. In the end, Stone observes, the Chinese are likely
to mix and match, developing a hybrid system that is different
from that of any other country—which, in turn, may
influence others in Asia.
Multilateral innovation. In the first case before
the International Crime Court, for example, the chief prosecutor
is a Korean American from New York City. Working with colleagues
from Argentina, Belgium, France, and Germany, the team is
creating new methods, norms, and ethics that Stone believes
will influence practices in each member’s own domestic
Global dissemination of justice products. The dissemination
of justice products—such as court management computer
systems, consulting services, and prison design—will
also shape our criminal justice system in 2040. For example,
Stone notes, a European-developed court management system
has been successfully marketed in South Africa.
Hollywood. With its tremendous influence on attitudes
about justice, Hollywood also stands to influence the development
of criminal justice systems throughout the world. The television
program Law and Order is currently viewed in more
than 40 countries, and CSI in more than 22. Although
entertainment, such programs affect people’s expectations
of the justice system. For example, most countries do not
try criminal cases in front of juries, yet American films
and television create expectations that justice includes
jury trials, perhaps lending support to the introduction
of jury trials in Russia.
Empirical evidence. Comparative evidence about what
works, what doesn’t, and why will play a major role
in how the world’s justice systems look in 2040. Stone
offers some ideas for comparative research that could impact
criminal justice in the future:
- Civilian oversight of police.
An essential element of justice, comprehensive systems
for civilian management are rapidly developing in many
- Prosecution. More than a dozen
countries in Latin America, for example, are exploring
new roles for prosecutors, which could lead to a new relationship
with victims and new systems for plea bargaining.
- Indigent defense. Pilot projects
to improve public defense—which, Stone believes,
is weak everywhere—are underway in Africa, Eastern
Europe, and England, with alluring potential for comparative
Which Path to Take?
David Weisburd believes that the nature of criminal justice
in 2040 will depend in large part on the primary research
methodology. Is the criminal justice community better served
by relying on the experiences and opinions of practitioners
(the clinical experience model) or by research that tests
programs and measures outcomes (the evidence-based model)?
Currently, the clinical experience model is the research
path most frequently followed. Policies and technologies
are based primarily on reports from practitioners about
what they have found to work or not work. Sharing approaches
and programs that seemed to work in one community with another
community allows for quick application of successful ideas.
The downside of this model is that a program may be widely
adopted before scientific research demonstrates its efficacy
in more than one place or application. For example, in one
youth program aimed at reducing delinquency, counselors
and parents believed that the treatments were effective,
based on initial measures of success. However, subsequent
evaluation revealed that participation in the program actually
increased the risk of delinquency.
In the evidence-based model, a new program undergoes systematic
research and evaluation before it is widely adopted. Now
dominant in medicine—and becoming more popular in other
areas such as education—the evidence-based model has
been used successfully in criminal justice. For example,
hot-spot policing (a policy adopted in the early 1990’s
that focuses police resources in high-crime areas) was preceded
by studies that demonstrated its effectiveness.
But the evidence-based model also has shortcomings. Research
requires a large investment of time and money, and many
practitioners understandably would rather spend resources
implementing an innovation than wait for confirming research.
Time—always a precious commodity for policymakers and
practitioners—can be a particularly frustrating component
of the evidence-based model. Credible research requires
time to adequately test an approach, often in more than
one jurisdiction, before communities can adopt it on a large
“Policymakers want to improve things while they have
the power,” Weisburd says. “They are under pressure
to make an impact—so there is tension between the slowness
of the evidence-based process and the pressure to move quickly.”
Making the Evidence-Based Model Realistic
Weisburd proposes making the evidence-based model “more
realistic.” He believes this can be done by:
- Streamlining the process of developing
evidence and conducting evaluations.
- Building an infrastructure to ensure
that studies do not reinvent the wheel.
- Devising methods for getting studies
off the ground faster, such as encouraging funders to
help in the development of high-quality randomized experimental
- Reinforcing a culture that emphasizes
the exploration of which programs and practices do and
do not work.
Weisburd also argues that Federal investment in the scientific
evaluation of new practices and programs must be increased.
Researchers and practitioners must insist that “if
you want us to make intelligent policy and not waste money
by prematurely innovating in hundreds of departments, you
must give us more money.”
All three experts emphasize the need to find new ways to
work with professionals around the globe. For example, the
Vera Institute in the United States has formed an alliance
with academic and nonprofit organizations in other countries
to conduct evaluations of the criminal justice process,
from policing through sentencing.
Ultimately, Vila, Stone, and Weisburd agree, the world
of 2040 will have a more shared culture due to such trends
as globalization, mobility, and spreading diversity. Within
this context, the priority over the next three and a half
decades should be to develop policies and technologies that
will help policymakers, decisionmakers, and citizens realize
a criminal justice system that is fair, equitable, and respectful.
Bryan J. Vila, Christopher E. Stone, and David Weisburd
spoke at NIJ’s Annual Research and Evaluation Conference
in July 2004.