Setting the Record Straight

The Department of Criminology's new Fact Check site unmasks false claims surrounding the criminal justice system.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

By Blake Cole

The Department of Criminology's faculty are tackling hot-button issues with their new Fact Check site, which features columns from faculty hoping to set the record straight.

"Almost daily from across the full political spectrum, there are public claims about crime and criminal justice that purport to be based on facts," says Richard Berk, Professor and Chair of the Department of Criminology. "Far too often, the 'facts' are wrong, misrepresented, or purposely distorted. The Department of Criminology cares deeply about facts and about criminal justice policy. There are, therefore, three objectives motivating our fact checking site: (1) to provide “true” facts when they are known, (2) to convey that facts are based on the weight of the empirical evidence and, (3) to educate about how credible facts are determined. To date, all fact checks have been written by Penn Criminology faculty. We are hoping to get Penn students supervised by faculty involved as well."

See below for a sampling of the columns.


Can One Believe Forensic Evidence?

By Richard Berk



The several television programs under the CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) brand are crime dramas depicting how sophisticated forensic tools are used to solve cases. Because such tools are based on science, they are only as good as the science on which they rest. How good is the science? As the references listed below make plain, much of the forensics depicted in television programs is at best fanciful, and real life forensics are too often not much better.
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By Aaron J. Chalfin



Since 1980, the share of the US population that is foreign born has doubled, rising from just over 6% in 1980 to over 12% in 2010. Compounding this demographic shift, the share of the foreign born population of Mexican origin also doubled, leading to a quadrupling of the fraction of US residents who are immigrants from Mexico. A majority of recent immigrants of Mexican origin living in the United states are thought to be undocumented, leading to a contentious policy debate concerning the collateral consequences of this particular type of immigration.
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By Richard Berk



With all of publicity surrounding crime statistics, it is easy to get a misleading impression about the risks that homicides pose. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control can provide a factual basis from which to assess the real risks.
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Do We Incarcerate Too Many People?

By Richard Berk



From the 1970s until about 2010, the number of individuals incarcerated in state prisons, federal prisons, and local jails increased dramatically. The main drivers were (1) changes in laws leading to longer, often mandatory, sentences, (2) "truth-in-sentencing" legislation requiring individuals convicted of violent crimes to serve at least 80% of their sentences, and (3) increased use of incarceration for drug-related crimes. Since then, there have been concerted efforts in some jurisdictions to reduce the number of individuals incarcerated.
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By Charles Loeffler



Recent empirical research has shown that juveniles do not achieve complete psychosocial maturity until post-adolescence and that trying juveniles as adults can be associated with elevated rates of criminal recidivism (Steinberg & Cauffman, 1996). In response to these as well as other concerns, several states including Illinois, Conneticut, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and New Hampshire, have recently raised their legal ages of majority in the hopes of reducing juvenile offending rates. 
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Is There A Nationwide Increase In Violent Crime?

By Richard Berk



The FBI recently released the 2015 crime figures from its Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system. Based on information from all of the police departments responding, property crime fell by a little over 2.5% compared to 2014. 
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Does Stop-And-Frisk Reduce Crime?

By John MacDonald



Some politicians claim that the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) extensive use of stop, question, and frisk practices in the past are the primary cause of New York’s low crime rate. Is this claim supported by research?
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Does the Death Penalty Deter Crime?

By Richard Berk



There have been claims for decades that in the United States the death penalty serves as a deterrent. When there are executions, violent crime decreases. But there have also been claims that executions “brutalize” society because government agencies diminish respect for life when the death penalty is applied. With brutalization comes an increase in violent crime, and especially homicides. Both sides assert that there is credible research supporting their position.
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