Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Critical Criminology and Its Discontents: A Response to Travers' Critique of Criminal Justice Evaluation

Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Critical Criminology and Its Discontents: A Response to Travers' Critique of Criminal Justice Evaluation

Article excerpt

In a recent article in this journal Max Travers advanced the view that criminal justice evaluation is boring, biased and beset with methodological problems. As evidence of this he cited (among other things) an evaluation of the NSW Drug Court carried out by the present author and several of his colleagues. This article offers a brief response to Travers' claims.

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Max Travers (2005) has advanced a 'provisional' critique of criminal justice evaluation that includes, among other things, a concern that evaluation research is predicated on a misguided notion of objectivity (Travers, 2005, p. 48), a concern that it reflects 'managerial bias' and a concern that it 'serves the needs of the powerful' (Travers, 2005, p. 40). His main criticism, however, is that '... most evaluation research is methodologically poor ... when assessed by the standards employed in the academic peer-reviewed disciplines of criminology and sociology' (Travers, 2005, p. 39).

Now this is a criticism that would make any unreconstructed positivist (like me) sit up and take notice, especially when (and here I must admit my bias) his or her own work is being singled out for critical attention. What follows, then, is a brief rejoinder to the challenge Max Travers has so provocatively laid down.

Travers' Lament

Travers begins his argument by reiterating a few standard criticisms of positivist research (e.g., it is designed to serve the needs of the 'powerful') first popularised by the 'new' criminologists of the 1970s (see Taylor et al., 1975). He then points out that these criticisms 'do not fully explain the hostile or dismissive reaction that many academics have towards evaluation research' (Travers, 2005, p. 40). The real reason for this hostility, according to Travers, is that '... evaluation research ... has lower methodological standards than the academic peer-reviewed disciplines of criminology and sociology, and does not offer the same intellectual interest or fulfilment as traditional academic work' (Travers, 2005, p. 40).

Now it would be easy to take issue with the second part of this claim. There are academic criminologists published in this journal who exhibit what Chan (1994, p. 25) has aptly described as a 'nagging discomfort' about the enterprise of crime prevention (see, e.g., Knepper, 2003). Judging from the quantity of evaluation research being published, however, many other academic criminologists seem to find evaluation extremely interesting. There is no accounting for individual differences in personal taste or intellectual curiosity. As the saying goes, one person's meat is another person's poison. Let us therefore move on to more substantial matters.

The claim that much evaluation research is methodologically weak is more serious and, on the face of it, harder to resist. Meta-analyses of criminal justice evaluation research (e.g., Sherman et al. 2002) routinely reject large numbers of studies on the grounds of poor design, poor statistical analyses, low sample sizes, weak measures of key variables, inadequate controls and so on. These problems bedevil evaluation research in Australia. Many crime prevention programs are simply not evaluated. Those that are often lack very strong controls. It is easy to cite examples. The evaluation of the NSW Merit Scheme is one (Passey, 2003). The work carried out by Cain on custodial penalties and juvenile reoffending is another (Cain, 1996). The work carried out by Luke and Lind (2002) on youth justice conferencing is a third.

Many of the people involved in these sorts of evaluations openly admit the weaknesses in their own research. These weaknesses do not usually stem from lack of competence on the part of those who conduct the evaluations, although this is a common problem where community crime prevention grants schemes are concerned (Weatherburn, 2004). They stem from the fact that governments often make rigorous evaluation difficult, if not impossible. …

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