Preparing for the Future: Criminal Justice in 2040

by Nancy M. Ritter

About the Author
Nancy M. Ritter is a writer/editor at the National Institute of Justice.

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 justice experts:

  • 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 targets.

Global Trends

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 systems.

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 countries.
  • 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 research.

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 scale.

“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 studies.
  • 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.”

Global Alliances

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.

NCJ 215456