Lawrence M. Friedman and George Fisher
If history is worth anything, it is in part because it has the power to warn us which roads not to take again. There may be areas of human life in which people have profited from understanding history, but criminal justice is definitely not one of them. In this field, each generation seems to undo the last generation's reforms. Each generation resurrects old failures and trots them out as new. A previous generation hailed indeterminate sentencing as a great innovation that would help criminals on the road to rehabilitation. Our generation is sending this system to the dust heap. A previous generation buried the chain gang. Our generation is digging it up for new service.
When a group of scholars who study crime or criminal justice met at Stanford Law School in October 1995, the shadow of great historical failure hung over the conversation. Outside were the more ominous rumblings of the present sense of crisis. The central question for discussion was the relationship between crime and criminal justice. Criminal justice -- that giant and growing network of courts, trials, prisons, police, and probation -- justifies itself as our chief social agency against crime. Does it do its job? Does it do it well? And at what cost, in dollars or human grief?
Our goal was modest, as it had to be. We never expected in two days of talking to solve problems of the ages. We wanted simply to raise the level of understanding, if only a bit. We wanted people from different fields and