The Public Humanist

Higher Education and the Criminal Justice System

Let’s begin with two basic assertions: first, at least at the macro level, crime and the economy are related and second, at least at the micro level, higher education has a positive impact in reducing criminal behavior. A plethora of research exists that suggests that in general, when times are tough, crime usually increases. This is not true for all communities nor is it true for all crime types, but in general, this assertion remains true historically. In regards to the second assertion, education has been shown to have a positive impact on inhibiting criminal and delinquent behavior in many circumstances. Again, this is not true for all individuals nor is it true for all types of criminal behavior, but in general, those with higher education tend to be the least likely to commit certain types of crime.

In addition, education has been an important component of reform and growth in the criminal justice system since it began to move away from the early informal, voluntary, system of social control that existed before immigration and urbanization changed this country’s landscape and culture. Robert Peel and August Vollmer, recognized for their work in professionalizing law enforcement, (Peel first in England, and Vollmer later in America), both argued for a better educated police force for a variety of reasons.

Of course these relationships—crime and the economy, criminal behavior and education, education and the criminal justice system—are far more complex than can be discussed here today, and are fraught with spurious, intervening, and interacting mechanisms that add to their complexity. But I have yet to see higher education make someone “worse” and I have yet to see a poor economy have a “positive” impact on crime. That said, why do some of the first proposed budget cuts call for reduced financial support for public safety and education?

Locally, proposed budget cuts to public safety and education might be a double whammy. Here in Massachusetts, as was discussed in an earlier post, there is a strong financial incentive for police officers to earn a college degree. The Police Career Incentive Pay Program (PCIPP), commonly known as the “Quinn Bill” provides salary raises proportionate to three college degree levels with an Associate’s degree receiving the lowest salary increase and a Master’s degree receiving the highest salary increase. Enacted in 1970, spearheaded by a Robert Quinn, a former Massachusetts Attorney General in response to the 1967 President’s Crime Commission Report calling for a better educated police force. Essentially, the commission argued that educating police officers should be a national priority given the level of complexity inherent in social or “wicked” problems they are tasked with responding to on a daily basis. A college education, theoretically, would provide police officers the critical thinking skills necessary to respond to, and hopefully develop solutions to the crime problems they observed in the communities they police.

The overwhelming majority of research on higher education and law enforcement indicates that a better educated police officer is a better police officer. The jury is still out in terms of which content areas will best serve police officers, and yes, as with any research, there are a minority of studies that have contradictory findings. These contradictory findings could be the result of differences in sampling and measurement across studies, and quite frankly, more research needs to be conducted in this area. Regardless, the highlights of the literature to date suggest that:

College-educated police officers:

  • Have better communication skills
  • Write better reports
  • Are more tolerant with citizens and accepting of diversity
  • Display clearer thinking
  • Have a better understanding of policing and the criminal justice system
  • Have a better comprehension of civil rights issues from multiple perspectives

College-educated police officers also:

  • Adapt better to organizational change
  • Are more professional
  • Have fewer administrative and personnel problems
  • Are better able to utilize innovative techniques
  • Receive fewer citizen complaints
  • Receive fewer disciplinary actions
  • Have fewer preventable accidents
  • Took less sick time away from work
  • Perform better in police training
  • Are less likely to use deadly force
  • Are less cynical
  • Are more open-minded
  • Place a higher value on ethical conduct

College-educated Officers report that they:

  • Are better able to utilize employee contacts
  • Have a greater knowledge of the law
  • Are better prepared for court
  • Have a higher quality of performance on the job
  • Have a higher level of problem-solving abilities
  • Communicate better and have better interpersonal working relationships
  • Are better at resolving conflicts
  • Are more equipped to deal with criticism, change, workload, and stress
  • Make better discretionary decisions

Upon reading the above highlights, you might ask yourself, why would we even think about reducing the support necessary to encourage police officers to obtain a college degree? Especially given the uncertain the economy and the well researched findings that crime tends to rise when the economy is weakened. Wouldn’t we want our police officers now, more than ever, to be better problem solvers and better critical thinkers? One argument may be that the PCIPP program just inflates the already ridiculous salaries of police officers in the state of Massachusetts, after all, the Boston Globe reports many state and municipal officers with six figure salaries, right? My counter argument, having worked closely with many of these police officers, is that those who make the six figure salaries work upwards of 80-90 hours per week on average. The math is very simple and very clear: if one works the equivalent of two full time jobs, one should get paid the equivalent of two full time jobs.

Another argument against the PCIPP program is that the quality of certified degree programs is questionable. In the past, that may have been the case, but the surviving programs after the shake-up in 2003, were deemed by the state of Massachusetts to be high quality programs and must provide annual reports documenting their compliance with extensive guidelines. New programs wishing to receive PCIPP certification must undergo a rigorous review process and must also submit annual reports documenting their continued compliance. I take very seriously my role as a liberal arts educator to instill the skills and knowledge necessary to be and do all those things listed above, and the cool thing is I get to watch it happen. Just this week, I watched students defend their Master theses and was witness to what our program calls the “reflective practitioner” model at work. One student began his defense with the statement that his conclusions and recommendations about sex offender registry were much different than what he believed at the start of writing his thesis. He was amazed at the level of complexity that existed in what many people consider to be a “black and white” issue. The political, economic, organizational, and societal factors tangled in this issue pose their own challenges to implementing solid laws and policies that protect victims, society, and yes, even offenders. This student is one of many I have watched over the years.

One needs to remember that a primary reason we have a criminal justice system is our inability or unwillingness to deal with crime and other, equally complicated social problems. And if the problem is that complex and if most of us can’t or won’t do the work ourselves, why would we expect an overworked, underpaid, and undereducated police force to do any better? The PCIPP program in Massachusetts should be a national model for achieving the recommendation of the 1967 President’s Crime Commission (and many commissions before and after it) to provide a college education to those people tasked with an enormous and very complicated job—protecting life and promoting justice. And we as a society owe it to these officers to give them the support they need to do their job well.

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