A new course, introduced at the Harvard Kennedy School in fall 2022, had students evaluating the public and internal budgeting within the criminal legal system of four jurisdictions to look at the cost of crime and punishment to the taxpayer. A Performance Evaluation of the Criminal Legal System was offered as part of the Social and Urban Policy curriculum after Sandra Susan Smith, the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice and the Director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, recommended its inclusion.
The course asked students, in part, to determine whether the criminal legal system is effective enough to justify the costs, and to justify the harm that it perpetrates on the most marginalized people in society. “What all of the data from this course shows,” Adjunct Lecturer Bobby Constantino explained, “is that the implicit assumption of our society, that more ‘system’ equals more punishment and more people brought to justice, is dead wrong.”
Constantino, a former prosecutor, came up with the idea for the course. He had previously worked in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office assessing data on criminal justice policies. Constantino had been brought into that office by then-Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins to help analyze the new policies she was going to implement. “She was big on data and academic research that would either show that her policies were effective or that they were not,” he said.
Academic research he facilitated for the Rollins administration, published in 2021, showed that non-prosecution results in large future reductions in criminal case filings down the road. Sandra Susan Smith was interested in doing qualitative research to determine why that was the case. Constantino met with Smith, who was also intrigued by the research design. Constantino had been assisted in his research by graduate students, including Madeleine Smith MPP/MBA 2023. This gave Professor Smith the idea to merge Constantino’s work with experiential education. “So, what began as a project for the DA’s office, slowly turned into a syllabus that we adapted for students,” Constantino said.
The 2022 midterms, in which crime was a central issue and politicians often talked about it using inaccurate data, demonstrated the importance of the subject. “Prospective voters are constantly being presented with a narrative that the system is performing at a high level, bringing people who commit harm to justice and keeping us safe in short order, but in jurisdiction after jurisdiction last semester, students found data that directly contradicted this narrative,” Constantino said “It's just not effective enough to justify all these costs, and to justify all the harm that the system is perpetrating on the most marginalized people in our society.”
The course engaged students in identifying and gathering public and internal budgeting and administrative caseload data from agencies that comprise the criminal legal system and calculating the true cost of the system to taxpayers. They then determined if the benefits of the system are worth the costs. The four jurisdictions studied by students in the course were Manhattan, New Orleans, Denver, and San Francisco.
Eliazar Chacha MC/MPA 2023 enrolled in the class because of Constantino. “I looked him up,” Chacha recalled. “I found that he once wore a suit and went to a predominantly Black neighborhood, and tried to get arrested and wasn't getting arrested,” he said. "Constantino was asking, ‘Who are the police serving?’ I knew I had to learn from this guy.”
For Chacha, who hails from Oakland, California, the desire to expose racial prejudice in policing was particularly important—he was marked by experiences that highlighted racial prejudice, such as the death of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Black man killed by police in 2009 on a train in San Francisco.
Chacha has a law degree from Columbia and left private practice to work as counsel for U.S Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat. When she retired, he enrolled at HKS on a Zuckerman Fellowship. He is currently awaiting an offer of a White House Fellowship.
“I represented two clients, one while on Capitol Hill working with Rep. Speier, and one pro bono at a law firm, under the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill that allows certain individuals with nonviolent offenses to be released, due to health issues or other circumstances,” Chacha explained. “That's where I found my biggest impact, and I really fell in love with it. So, when I saw this class, I said ‘I have to take this class’. It is one of those classes that I wish I was taught in law school.”
Chacha and his team evaluated the San Francisco system. Their class goal was to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of San Francisco’s criminal legal system with available data from 2017-2021. “One of things I really appreciated about the class is that you always hear about the problems, you never hear about the solutions, or how people put little changes in place and, through data, are able to see the impact of those changes,” he noted.
Chuck Meire MPP 2023 joined the student team evaluating New Orleans. Their goal was to understand the cost effectiveness of a “success case” of the criminal legal system in Orleans Parish for the period 2018-2021. (Constantino argued for and encouraged the use of quotation marks around “success cases” because even though a case might be disposed of successfully, the harm imposed on society by a criminal case is anything but successful.)
Meire came to HKS on a Black Family Fellowship after working in government research and development for the Army National Guard. He is also an advocate for carceral reform in his home state of Virginia. He also hopes the course will continue at HKS.
“I was drawn to the course because of the applied nature. The point was to achieve a tangible goal (evaluate a single city's criminal legal system) not just to learn about a policy area,” Meire said. “We were able to gain meaningful insight into the issues that plague criminal legal systems around the country.”
Among the key takeaways from his evaluation was how expensive the system is. “How would the citizens of New Orleans feel knowing they each pay $1,143 per year for a system that only convicts one case per 67 crimes reported,” he asked. He also found racial disparity in the New Orleans system, as did the other teams. “There is just no escaping the fact that this system punishes Black men with much greater severity than other groups.”
“I hope that someone in New Orleans will ask these questions to policymakers and that other groups and concerned individuals will perform similar work in their communities,” he said. “I think everyone should understand exactly what their tax dollars are buying them.”
Meire is sure he will take these lessons with him to his next position. After graduating, he will work as deputy policy director at JULIAN, a small civil rights nonprofit focusing on combatting racial terror and ending mass incarceration.
Six professionals added their insights in the course, including Matthew Saniie, chief data and technology officer for the Cook County DA’s office, Emily Davies, D.C. metro crime reporter for the Washington Post, and Andrew Taylor, research manager at CUNY’s Data Collaborative for Justice.
Constantino also credited the support of Smith and other HKS professors like Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, an assistant professor of public policy who is currently researching whether voters have the information they need to hold criminal legal systems accountable, for the success of the class.
“I love that this class has been able to just boldly go in and ask the question ‘What does the data say?’ And then we go wherever the data takes us,” he said. “There's no political agenda there. We challenge students to do the research and see what the data shows us, what the data says about the system.”
“Bobby Constantino’s course, a kind of forensic audit of the criminal legal system, was an extraordinary addition to HKS’s curriculum this year—a unique, impactful, and transformative opportunity for our students,” Smith said. “I wish we could offer such a course every year.”
Image credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images