Building Better Policies on Better Knowledge

Michael Tonry, University of Minnesota

To people of a certain cast of mind, it is obvious that good public policies should be based on sound knowledge, and that better knowledge should conduce to better policies. So apparently it seemed to the authors of The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society and related Task Force reports. Together they made a number of recommendations for increased federal support for criminal justice research and statistics, creation of a federal research and statistics infrastructure, and enhancement of the quality and quantity of information available for informed policymaking.

How influential the recommendations were and what effects can be attributed to them 30 years later depends largely on perspective. From the perspective embodied in Samuel Johnson's aphorism about dogs that walk on their hind legs--"It is not done well but you are surprised that it is done at all"--the effects have been noteworthy: who would expect that any credible research and statistics activities would occur in an operating law enforcement agency? The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) can both be traced to the President's Commission and, despite ups and downs, have conducted or sponsored work that is widely seen as important and serious; and both are probably doing better work today than ever before.

From a more optimistic perspective, BJS and NIJ have always lacked adequate financial and political support, and NIJ particularly is but a shadow of what it might and should have been. Albert J. Reiss, Jr., a principal in the Commission's pathbreaking victimization and police studies and for the past 30 years one of America's most influential criminology scholars, observed in a 25-year retrospective on the crime commission that the proposal for an independent research agency was "still-born" and that the role of NIJ "has shifted to that of program evaluation and away from the kind of basic research and development advocated by the Commission" (Reiss 1994, pp. 15-16). Alfred Blumstein, Director of Science and Technology for the Commission and for the past 30 years another of the nation's most influential criminology scholars, wrote, "Experience with the National Institute of Justice over its [first] twenty-five years makes it clear that such a major effort cannot be organized or executed as a minor part of a department that seems to have an inherently minimal and peripheral interest in empirical research" (Blumstein and Petersilia 1995, p. 485).

The President's Commission recommended establishment of a National Criminal Justice Statistics Center in the Department of Justice, establishment of a National Foundation for Criminal Research as an independent agency, and provision of substantial federal financial support for a number of independent criminal justice research institutes. Chapters 11 and 12 of the Commission's main report, The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society (1967), briefly make the case for these recommendations, and Chapter 10 of Crime and Its Impact--An Assessment (1967), the report of the Commission's Task Force on Assessment, directed by Lloyd Ohlin, discusses the mission of the proposed statistics agency at length.

The criminal statistics center was established in the Department of Justice and today, after several organizational and name changes, exists as BJS. The research agency was established--as part of the U.S. Department of Justice and not as an independent agency--and today exists as NIJ. Support for the independent research institutes did not materialize in any significant form--in Reiss's words, "one of many still-born recommendations of the Commission" (1994, p. 14).

The causal chain that links BJS and NIJ to the President's Commission is clear. As a direct follow-up to the Commission's report, legislation was introduced in 1967 which led to passage of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. That Act created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration ("LEAA") which contained the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice ("NILECJ") and the National Criminal Justice Information and Statistics Service. The directors of the early research and statistics offices were appointed by the Administrator of LEAA and lacked "sign-off" (spending) authority; the Administrator had final authority over research funding decisions. This arrangement proved unstable; Understanding Crime (White and Krislov 1977), a National Academy of Sciences report on NILECJ's early years, described a deeply troubled agency. LEAA was eventually abolished and BJS and NIJ emerged in the Justice Systems Improvement Act of 1979 as distinct agencies under the umbrella initially of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Assistance, Research, and Statistics (now the Office of Justice Programs).

Both BJS and NIJ have achieved some of the things the President's Commission sought. BJS has steadily improved the reliability, timeliness, availability, and coverage of the data series it maintains and has overseen the evolution of the National Crime Victimization Survey (also traceable to the President's Commission). NIJ has sponsored important and influential research and evaluations, and through its publication and other dissemination programs has made research findings widely available. Both have, in the mid-1990s, achieved visibility and credibility in their respective scholarly and professional constituencies that would have been unimaginable 20 or even ten years ago.

In important respects, however, the Congress did not follow the research and statistics recommendations of the President's Commission. The President's Commission urged that the federal crime research agency be established as an independent agency outside the Department of Justice--patterned on the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health--as insulation from direct political pressures and short-term operational interests, and to establish and protect the intellectual integrity, credibility, and professionalism of the agency. The Wickersham Commission four decades earlier, for similar reasons, urged that a federal statistical agency be established outside the Department of Justice in the Bureau of the Census. Many of the rockier periods in the history of BJS and NIJ can be attributed to their placement in the partisan environment and legal (as opposed to scientific) culture of the Department of Justice.

This essay considers the 30-years-later influence of the President's Commission's recommendations concerning acquisition of knowledge relating to crime, criminal justice system operations, and policymaking. Coverage necessarily is selective: construed broadly, an examination of the "acquisition of knowledge . . ." would extend to all subjects to which research and statistics are germane and would require encyclopedic scope. Three sets of issues are considered here. Section I discusses structural issues relating to how federal criminal justice research and statistics should be organized if they are maximally to achieve the aims the President's Commission (and the Wickersham Commission 35 years before it) wished to see achieved. Section II concerns federal criminal justice statistical series; it first sets out specific needs for national data series identified by the President's Commission, and then examines whether and to what extent those data series have been established. Section III briefly considers whether the innovations that the President's Commission's proposals set in motion have furthered its goal of improved policies resulting from improvements in the scope and quality of available policy-relevant knowledge.

The initial version of this paper was prepared for discussion at a national conference that examined the influence 30 years later of the President's Commission. It was held in Washington, D.C., on June 19-21, 1997. Several issues raised there warrant mention. First, the President's Commission's recommendation for creation of a research agency independent from operational and partisan interests, all in the interest of providing better knowledge to inform policymaking, arguably implies a highly rationalistic view of policymaking processes. As anyone who participates in policy processes knows, however, policymaking is much more serendipitous than that and it is seldom the case that better knowledge leads directly to better policies (e.g., Lynn, 1978; Lindblom, 1990; Moore, 1995). The President's Commission no doubt was aware of that, however, and it is unfair to impute to it and its staff a naive understanding of policy processes. That more reliable knowledge does not always or even often lead to policy change does not mean that better knowledge is not valuable for itself and for analytic and critical purposes.

Second, arguably implicit in the Commission's preference for independence and political insulation for the research institute and appointment of a professional researcher as director, is the idea that scientists will make better decisions about research subjects than will practitioners or people in operating agencies. A contrary view is that practitioners are more likely than scientists to know what subjects are policy-relevant and would benefit from systematic research. This suggests a false dualism between insulated ivory-tower scientists and hard-headed men and women of affairs. There is no reason why an independent research agency would not consult widely with practitioners and others concerning its research strategies and agenda. It seems clear that the President's Commission (1967, p. 277) envisioned many policy-relevant topics, including court delays and new-project evaluations, as appropriate research subjects.

Third, a related point, critics might argue that the Commission's calls for "basic research" were misplaced and that "better policy for better knowledge" might instead suggest a program of applied research and program evaluation. This might particularly be the view of researchers who work in government agencies and who are often asked by administrators and public officials to provide information relevant to issues then under consideration. However, as the preceding reference to evaluation research (President's Commission, 1967, p. 277) and policy experiments suggests, the Commission's report demonstrates that it had a broad conception of basic research in mind. Assuming, however, that an independent research institute would concentrate on longer-term, less immediately policy-relevant research does not mean that government should not also sponsor more applied work. It might have meant, however, that agencies other than the independent research institute would sponsor it.

Fourth, the Commission assumed that the most talented researchers are based in universities and, accordingly, that efforts should be made to attract university-based researchers to crime research. The Commission does seem to have believed this and, in the 1990s, this is a controversial subject. Some NIJ staff say privately that researchers based in private and non-private research firms typically do better work than university-based researchers. Certainly many researchers based in contract research firms take umbrage at the idea that university-based researchers are in general better qualified or more talented. A proponent of the Commission's view might point out that tenured teaching jobs at major research universities are much harder to get than are jobs with private research firms, and that university-based researchers with assured salaries are better situated to choose research projects on scientific grounds than are contract researchers who must often work on projects and subjects that government is prepared to pay for. This is an issue on which I express no personal view.

Reasonable people can disagree about the issues introduced in the preceding few paragraphs. Some of the arguments and criticisms are disagreements with the Commission's recommendations or the rationales behind them. My task, however, is to take the recommendations as offered and consider to what extent they were realized.

I. The Organization of Federal Statistics and Research Agencies

The President's Commission observed that "what it has found to be the greatest need is the need to know" (1967, p. 273) and that "[W]e need to know much more about crime. A national strategy against crime must be in large part a strategy of search" (p. 279). "Accurate data are the beginning of wisdom," observed the Wickersham Commission (1931, p. 3), in recommending a plan for creating a "complete body of statistics covering crime, criminals, criminal justice, and penal treatment" at federal, state, and local levels and entrusting this task to a single federal agency. Chapter ten of Crime and its Impact: An Assessment, the report of the Task Force on Assessment (1967, pp. 123-37), begins by quoting those words and reporting that the Wickersham Commission's recommendations were never adopted. In the following pages, the Task Force then set out its own recommendations which, though differing in detail, in broad outline and in governing premises closely resemble the Wickersham Commission's.

The shared premises warrant mention because, though they were in the 1930s and 1960s and are in the 1990s widely shared by many practitioners, public officials, and scholars, they are not widely shared today by many elected officials and lay people--and that is a major reason why development of federal research and statistics programs has been so incomplete and erratic (Reiss 1994, p. 16). The premises are that crime and criminal justice are subjects on which reliable, systematic data and research findings are important and obtainable and that policies concerning those subjects should be based on honest, good faith assessments of available evidence. The Wickersham Commission (1931, p. 3) said this explicitly: "Statistics are needed to tell us, or at least help tell us, what we have to do, how we are doing it, and how far what we are doing corresponds to what we have to do. They are important in so far as they may be made to give us an accurate picture both as the basis of criticism and as the basis of making laws and administrative regulations." The Task Force on Assessment (1967, p. 123) said it implicitly by comparing the then dearth of federal criminal statistics programs with well-established national statistics systems concerning the economy, the labor market, public health, and education. The unasked but implicitly answered question in the Task Force report was, "Why, if the importance of good statistical systems concerning these other core functions of government is self-evident, isn't their importance concerning crime and criminal justice equally self-evident?"

The Wickersham Commission (1931, p. 3) offered one answer: "Most of those . . . who speak on American criminal justice assume certain things to be well known or incontrovertible." Felix Frankfurter (1930) observed that crime and crime control are subjects "overlaid with shibboleths and clichés." As Norval Morris (1983, p. vii) put it, "People are born experts on the causes and control of crime; they sense the solutions in their bones. Those solutions differ dramatically from person to person, but each one knows, and knows deeply and emotionally, that his perspective is the way of truth." Or, as Alfred Blumstein and Joan Petersilia (1995, p. 468) in less Olympian terms put it, "It may be that the policies intended to address crime and criminal justice are so strongly driven by fundamental ideological convictions" that policymakers do not want "to confront empirical reality because that might undermine their deeply held beliefs." It should not be surprising if many policymakers, already possessed of what they see as truth, are not easy to persuade about the merits of substantial, long-term public investment in the acquisition of knowledge about crime and its control.

The President's Commission and its Task Force on Assessment, like the Wickersham Commission before them, however, argued that rational criminal justice policymaking requires adequate statistical data. The President's Commission in addition argued that sound policymaking also required public investment in independent high-quality basic research; although this paper mostly discusses statistical systems, because many of the structural issues concerning federal support are the same or similar, proposals for both research and statistics agencies are discussed in this section I. In proposing creation of a federal statistical agency, both commissions and their respective primary consultants (Ploscowe 1931; Warner 1931; Lejins 1967) canvassed a common set of issues:

A. Independence from the Department of Justice

Both the President's and Wickersham Commissions wanted to separate information functions from the political dimensions and law enforcement culture of the Department of Justice. The Wickersham Commission recommended that federal statistical programs be consolidated and placed in the Bureau of the Census (1931, p. 17). The President's Commission, though urging that the statistics functions be placed within the Department of Justice (1967, p. 269), recommended that research activities be assigned to an independent "National Foundation for Criminal Research," patterned on the National Science Foundation, augmented by federal support for "a number of [independent] research institutes in various parts of the country" (1967, pp. 276-77).

At least three separate concerns can be identified: the Department's short-term operational emphases may distort and politicize research activities; the Department's legal culture may be incompatible with a research institute's scientific orientation; and a research organization in an operating agency may have difficulty attracting first-rate behavioral and social scientists to participate in its work. The past 30 years have shown some validity in each of those concerns. Employees of both NIJ and BJS have, of course, been acutely aware of these potential problems and have at different times made greater or lesser efforts to ameliorate them.

1. Operational Culture. The principal reason for recommending independence, and presumably the principal reason why those recommendations have always been rejected, is the perception that statistical programs and research will be subordinated to the political and organizational interests of the Department of Justice. The President's Commission (1967, p. 277), for example, observed that an independent research institute's "independent status would insure its freedom from the pressures and immediate needs of any federal agency responsible for criminal administration." The Wickersham Commission (1931, pp. 4-5) offered as one of five "principles of criminal statistics" the proposition that "it is important that the compiling and publication of statistics should not be confided to any bureau or agency which is engaged in administering the criminal law." The Commission then discussed at length various kinds of organizational interests that might motivate operating agencies to distort the data they publish. Later on (p. 13), it offered the related objection that data released by the government, even if distorted or misleadingly presented, may achieve unwarranted credibility: "[the data] will appear with the sanction of the Federal Government as public documents and will be widely used without questioning them."

In the abstract, those concerns are difficult to refute. No one can be surprised by the observation that officials of operating agencies will sometimes be tempted to edit, delay, censor, or kill statistical reports or research findings that will embarrass them, their agencies, or their political masters. Nor should anyone be surprised if heads of operating agencies want to harness research capacity to achievement of short-term policy goals; the National Academy of Sciences Panel that reviewed NILECJ's early years described repeated efforts to tie research to short-term policy initiatives, including "an intensification of the Institute commitment to directly reducing crime; . . . this effort has generally been considered not only a failure but wrong-headed as well" (White and Krislov, 1977, p. 21). Although no agency in government is free from political pressures, managers of an independent agency imbued with values of intellectual integrity and political disinterestedness are more likely to resist political pressures and short-term operational concerns than are officials of operating agencies.

Thus, the properties that make independence attractive to people who want research and statistics to be free from political and bureaucratic influence are properties that make independence unattractive to others. Some recent Attorneys General, for example, have evidently seen NIJ's and BJS's missions as including support for their administrations' policies and some have expected BJS directors to play advocacy roles inconsistent with BJS's functions as a nonpartisan statistical agency comparable to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The high-minded stances of the two commissions lost out to the unwillingness of elected officials to insulate research and statistics from political pressures. The Wickersham Commission's recommendation for establishment of a federal criminal statistics component in the Bureau of the Census was not acted on. The President's Commission's recommendation for creation of an independent research agency was rejected; instead the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, created under the '68 Act, included a "National Institute on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice" within it. Both LEAA and NILECJ, however, were part of the Department of Justice. The President's Commission, noting the importance of several existing statistical series housed within the Department (the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, the National Prisoner series managed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and management statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Parole Board), and possible leverage over states from Department control of financial incentives to states, recommended from the outset that the National Criminal Justice Statistics Center be included in the Department of Justice.

Both NIJ and BJS survived the elimination of LEAA. Arguments again were made concerning the need for independence of the research agency, on the National Science Foundation model, but were unsuccessful. Attorney General Griffin Bell, for example, in a memo to the President noted that "a major cause of weakness in LEAA's research programs has been the failure to insulate research activities from the demands of policymakers and program managers for immediate results" (quoted in Early, 1979, p. 357). Bert Early, executive director of the American Bar Association, testifying in favor of creation of an independent National Institute of Justice outside the Department of Justice, noted: "A research institute which is part of an 'action agency' such as the Department of Justice will inevitably be influenced and shaped by the Department's policy decisions and operational needs. Numerous studies of the current National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice have cited such pressures as primary causes of the Institute's disappointing record in performing justice research" (1979, p. 357).

In the Justice Systems Improvement Act of 1979, the Congress adopted a hybrid approach for both NIJ and BJS. Both were placed within a newly created Department of Justice division, then called the Office of Justice Assistance, Research, and Statistics, headed by an assistant attorney general, who had a coordination role over NIJ, BJS, and other sub-agencies, but no formal authority over NIJ and BJS operations and spending. The directors of those latter agencies, both nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, have sign-off powers over their agencies' spending and policies.

The hybrid arrangement has probably worked neither as well as its proponents wished nor as badly as its opponents feared. The inherently unstable relationship between the assistant attorney general and the NIJ, BJS, and other presidentially-appointed subagency heads sometimes--especially during the Reagan and Bush administrations--became tense. This should not be surprising since the assistant attorneys general, also presidential nominees, were higher placed than the NIJ and BJS directors in the Department's organizational chart and had a "coordinating" role but no formal authority to spend the subagencies' money or control spending decisions. The NIJ and BJS directors, equally unsurprisingly, have valued their independence and sign-off authority, and typically resisted efforts at control from directly above.

If the sign-off authority of the NIJ and BJS directors since the early eighties has in some ways helped preserve those agencies' autonomy, other aspects of the hybrid set-up undermined the professionalism and integrity of their operations. NIJ, for example, though a specialist research agency, has never been headed by a researcher (though its current research director, Sally Hillsman, a nationally prominent researcher, was recruited from outside government and is now a senior civil servant). BJS's current director, Jan Chaiken, is the first director from outside government who was widely acknowledged as a nationally prominent quantitative researcher before he was appointed. Alfred Blumstein (1994, p. 157) notes that NIJ "has often been directed by an individual with no significant prior experience in criminal justice research (one can imagine the uproar that would follow if someone with no prior health research experience were appointed the director of NIH)." Some directors, including notably James K. ("Chips") Stewart and Jeremy Travis, subscribed to mainstream ideas about research integrity and professionalism, but other directors conspicuously did not. Probably the low point was the 1991 Program Plan soliciting proposals for research on "Occult Crime: A National Assessment" (National Institute of Justice, 1991).

Similarly, confirming the Wickersham Commission's worst fears about the credibility of government-sponsored statistics, some directors of BJS became active spokesmen for various Attorneys General's political and ideological positions and distorted statistical data to that end. One director in the early 1980s, for example, claimed that 95 percent of all prisoners were violent offenders, repeat offenders, or repeat violent offenders. That director's successor made similarly hyperbolic public statements at the 1991 Attorney General's Summit on Law Enforcement Responses to Violent Crime (U.S. Department of Justice, 1991). Not surprisingly, in many circles, BJS statistical reports issued during the Reagan and Bush administrations were suspected to suffer from similar distortions (e.g., Hughes, 1992).

Patronage appointments often go to ideological soulmates and it may be too much to expect that BJS and NIJ directors can simultaneously be proponents of controversial political views and nonpartisan professionals in their oversight of agency operations. The role conflict may be greatest for BJS directors: statistical systems by their very nature must be nonpartisan to be believable. The Caesar's wife challenge both to be nonpartisan and to be seen to be nonpartisan may be difficult to satisfy. Jan Chaiken, the current BJS director, unlike his two immediate predecessors (not counting acting directors), has not been publicly associated with partisan politics during his tenure, and has been able to operate as a nonpartisan professional. Institutionally, however, there is nothing to inhibit subsequent administrations from appointing partisans who will once again undermine BJS's and NIJ's credibility.

The professionalism, credibility, and in the long term, the social value of the work of NIJ and BJS will continue to be unstable so long as the agencies' leadership and operations are subject to the vagaries of Department of Justice politics and policies. In terms of their specialist statistical and research-sponsoring roles, both NIJ and BJS are performing more professionally and effectively than ever before, but there is no assurance that current policies and institutional cultures will survive when new directors are appointed. I have little doubt that a 1990s rerun of the President's Commission would once again argue for the independence of NIJ from the Department of Justice and this time would agree with the Wickersham Commission that BJS should likewise be independent. Alfred Blumstein, whose career as a criminal justice scholar began with his work as director of science and technology for the President's Commission, who was a member of the NAS panel that evaluated NIJ's predecessor agency, and who was at one time publicly announced as a future nominee for the NIJ directorship, agrees (Blumstein, 1994; Blumstein and Petersilia, 1995).

2. Legal Culture. Concerns have many times been expressed that the Department of Justice environment is incompatible with the needs of high quality research agencies. This may be why the Wickersham Commission saw the Bureau of the Census as a better home for a federal statistics agency, why the President's Commission recommended a free-standing research institute patterned on the National Science Foundation, and why others (e.g., Blumstein, 1994) have proposed the National Institutes of Health as a model. Serious scientific research is long-term, strategic, and cumulative. Heads of scientific agencies are typically distinguished scientists; while their political predispositions may not be irrelevant to their selection, scientific credibility is typically at least a necessary condition. The House of Representatives Judiciary Committee noted this need (House Committee on the Judiciary, 1979, p. 19) when, as a partial response to the finding that NILECJ "has never attained the stature of a reputable research organization in either the research community or the criminal justice community," it recommended that NIJ in future "must be directed by a person of considerable stature in the research community" (p. 20). Earlier, the NAS report on NILECJ had likewise proposed that candidates for NIJ director have "significant experience and recognition in both research and research administration" (White and Krislov, 1977, p. 109).

As matters have since unfolded, however, no one could argue with a straight face that research experience or scientific reputation has been a necessary condition to appointment as a BJS or NIJ director: no NIJ director and only one BJS director had previously achieved distinction as a researcher and no NIJ director had principally made his or her career as a researcher. Likewise, although long-term and strategic approaches to data-set development are evident in some BJS programs, long-term and cumulative research strategies have been less conspicuous at NIJ. (There have been notable exceptions, including NIJ's support for the Program on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods [Tonry, Farrington, and Ohlin, 1991; Earls and Visher, 1997], the multi-year "Research Agreement Plans" of the 1970s, and systematic and cumulative research programs on criminal careers and police experiments in the 1980s, but in the aggregate these have never represented a large fraction of NIJ's budget.)

All of these problems, and the preoccupations with operational and political concerns mentioned in the preceding section, are probably inherent in the decisions to place partly independent special-purpose agencies in the Department of Justice. The NAS Panel observed that "lawyers . . . have little sympathy for the complexities of social science research and an often inadequate grasp of the potential and limitations of research in the criminal justice field" (White and Krislov, 1977, p. 30). Lawyers are notoriously skeptical of research and statistics and the Department's legal culture may gravitate against appointing nonpartisan technical specialists to patronage positions. Lawyers' advocacy roles may create a tendency toward cynicism about research; in litigation and in administrative agency proceedings, technical information and expert witnesses are things to be deployed in the effort to obtain the result a client wants rather than resources to be drawn upon to obtain the right answer. Lawyers are professionally predisposed to believe that there are "lies, damn lies, and statistics."

The different experiences and politics of the National Institutes of Health have often been contrasted with that of the National Institute of Justice, and the differences attributed to the professional orientations of doctors and lawyers. Blumstein and Petersilia (1995, p. 471), for example, observe that "from the first year of medical school, through residency, and through medical practice, physicians are taught consistently to advert to research findings in order to learn how to do their jobs better. They are constantly surveying the research literature . . . to keep up to date." By contrast, they observe, "in the legal profession there is no comparable tradition for empirical research. . . . Every case is addressed on its own terms. . . . Thus the search for generalizable knowledge that is the essence of empirical research--and that should provide a basis for public policy--is not a central aspect of legal professional work."

3. Scientific Credibility. At least since publication of the President's Commission's report (1967, pp. 275-277), supporters of proposals for independent research agencies have insisted that independence and high scholarly standards were essential if first-rate researchers are to be recruited to work on criminal justice research. The NAS Panel (White and Krislov, 1977, Chap. 4) echoed this concern as have others more recently (e.g., Reiss, 1994; Blumstein, 1994). The NAS Panel recommended a variety of measures to create a more scientific culture within NIJ: selection of scientifically qualified directors, creation of a distinguished scientific advisory board, creation of long-term strategic research programs, increased reliance on professional peer review processes, and a variety of changes designed to make the program more user-friendly to university-based researchers. Most of these things did not happen at NIJ: no fundamental reorientation toward a primarily scientific institutional identity has occurred. Use of peer-review has waxed and waned; under the current director, peer review is taken very seriously, but under previous directors this has often not been the case. And if it is true that the most talented and distinguished researchers typically work in university settings, the patterns of grants made over the years reveal a chronic tendency of NIJ processes that appear to make funded work more attractive to contract research firms than to university-based researchers. The NAS Panel noted this tendency at NILECJ in the 1970s (White and Krislov, 1977, Chap. 4). Albert J. Reiss, Jr., noted in the 1990s that sponsored work was increasingly being done by research firms like Abt Associates and RAND, practitioner-oriented organizations like the Police Foundation and the Police Executive Research Forum, and professional associations rather than by university-based research units (Reiss, 1994, p. 14).

Proponents of research firms point out that their continuity of personnel and full-time research staff make them better suited to do government-funded research. This, however, may be an artifact of grant-award processes at NIJ where grants are typically awarded on a project-by-project basis rather than on a multi-year institutional support basis. In other research fields such as the physical and medical sciences, universities often operate large-scale research institutes with long-term funding.

I don't belabor this point further except to say that if it is true that scholarship on criminology and criminal justice would be enriched if an institutional ethos like those of the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health could be established for federal crime research and statistics agencies, the failure to create such an ethos must have diminished the quality of the talent pool involved in criminal justice research and the resulting public benefit.

B. Integration of Statistical Programs

The issue here is whether there should be a single federal criminal justice statistics agency that maintains and publishes all national data sets, as the Wickersham Commission proposed, or whether the various national statistical series should remain in the agencies which first developed them, as the President's Commission proposed. I have no idea whether the difference in views results from differing conceptions of how statistics agencies ought ideally to operate or whether the Wickersham Commission's utter failure to influence the organization of federal statistics programs persuaded the President's Commission to think small.

The Wickersham Commission took it for granted that good information was indispensable to good policymaking, and proposed creation of a single criminal statistics program housed in the Bureau of the Census. The Bureau had by then for some years been developing statistical data series on state and federal prison systems. Consolidation would have required that the police data system included in the then-developing Uniform Crime Reports compiled by the FBI and the juvenile justice statistics then being developed by the Children's Bureau be removed from those agencies and transferred to the Bureau (Warner, 1931).

The reasons for distancing statistics operations from the Department of Justice have already been mentioned: operating agencies might be tempted to tamper with data for institutional reasons, and even if they were not, that possibility would undermine the data systems' credibility; alternatively, the Department of Justice imprimatur might cause credulous observers to give statistical data more respect than it deserves.

The reasons for consolidating statistical operations in one agency were technocratic. The Wickersham Commission (1931, p. 6) and its consultant Samuel Warner (1931, p. 48) were admirers of the consolidated systems of criminal justice statistics in England, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and several European countries, and described them as being incomparably better than anything in the United States. The Bureau of the Census was the obvious place, said Warner (1931, p. 48), because it is "that Department of the Federal Government which is most expert in solving statistical problems." Thus, even though the Commission noted that there would be transitional problems as the Census Bureau took over the juvenile statistics then being developed by the Children's Bureau and the crime-report and arrest statistics then being developed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the long run there would be benefits.

There were to be practical advantages from centralization. First, statistics should constitute a whole integrated system requiring "unity of treatment," and this was self-evidently more likely if all statistical systems were managed by one agency. Second, as statistical measures and data-gathering were gradually improved, various systems each evolving on its own would inevitably become less compatible than if managed by one agency.

In practice, the Wickersham Commission's recommendations had virtually no influence (House Committee on the Judiciary, 1979, pp. 14-15): no new national data systems were established and the juvenile and police statistics remained in the Children's Bureau and the FBI. The Census Bureau in 1950 lost control even of the national prison statistics programs which were then shifted to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

By the time the President's Commission reported, the political invulnerability of the juvenile statistics and the Uniform Crime Reports was evident and there was no proposal for the incorporation of those data series into a centralized statistics agency. Nor, whatever the merits of the Wickersham Commission's conclusion that federal statistics should be independent of the Justice Department, was independence proposed.

The proposed statistics center was not initially established except as a division of NILECJ. In the 1979 reorganization, BJS was created as an independent agency within the Department of Justice, separate from NIJ, and with a presidentially nominated director with sign-off authority. In explaining that change, the House Committee noted the "current fragmentation of national justice statistics" (1979, p. 16) and the need to create BJS to "remedy the gaps in our knowledge about court dispositions, bail practices, imprisonment statistics, and other information systems." Once again, however, no proposal was made to give BJS control of the Uniform Crime Reports or the juvenile statistics. Thus, BJS became a "National Criminal Justice Statistics Center" for those data series which it or predecessor agencies had created (the victim surveys, pretrial, prosecutorial, and court statistics) and those that it took over from the federal correctional agencies (probation, parole, jails, prisons).

Whatever the merits of arguments for and against assigning responsibility for all national statistical data series to BJS, the juvenile and law enforcement interests arrayed against consolidation were influential with both the President's Commission and the Congress and preserved those data series' independence. The reasons the House Committee gave for creation of "a single organization with responsibility for state criminal justice statistics on a national basis" were much the same as those mentioned by both the President's and Wickersham Commissions: needs for (1) greater credibility, (2) uniformity and comparability, (3) avoidance of duplication of effort, (4) greater availability, and (5) adequate analysis of criminal justice statistics (Committee on the Judiciary, 1979, p. 15). However, by excluding juvenile and police statistics from BJS's authority, the new agency that finally emerged in 1979 had less authority and capacity to achieve the efficiencies and quality improvements of the centralized statistics agencies in England and Canada that the Wickersham Commission held up as a model.

C. Sources of Data

For a variety of reasons of efficiency and federalism, the Wickersham Commission decided that the federal statistics agency should receive data primarily from state-level statistical bureaus and not from state and local operating agencies. Achievement of such a system was made a condition precedent to implementation of the Commission's recommendation that the Census Bureau be given responsibility for all criminal justice statistical series. The House Committee report (1979, pp. 14-15) and the President's Commission Task Force on Assessment (1967, pp. 124-26) describe the absence of follow-through on the Wickersham recommendations. Only California successfully created such a bureau; and by 1967, the only national data systems in operation were the Uniform Crime Report's police data, the Children's Bureau's juvenile data, and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons' national prison data.

The President's Commission and the Task Force on Assessment both acknowledged the desirability of the Wickersham recommendation in principle and its impracticability in practice and recommended creation of state statistics bureaus, with federal financial support, continuation of direct collection of data from operating agencies, and collection of data for new series on whatever bases circumstances required.

Since then, the two-track approach has continued. Many states have established state criminal justice statistics bureaus, of diverse sophistication and professionalism. However, all of the major federal statistical series collect data directly from state and local operating agencies. This might by some be seen as surprising inasmuch as BJS helped to create the state statistical agencies.

II. Recommendations Concerning New or Revised Statistical Series

The President's Commission had demonstrable influence on the creation of new systems of national data and on revision of existing ones. When the Commission reported, there were no ongoing national statistical systems on victimization, jails, pretrial detention, prosecution, criminal court operations, sentencing, parole, or recidivism. New systems were created on all these topics. The Commission proposed changes and improvements in the existing police, juvenile, and prison systems, and many of those were also made. Discussion of all these developments in detail would require several books. This paper accordingly gives only broad outlines.

A. New Statistical Series on System Operations

The Bureau of Justice Statistics and its predecessors created most of the new statistical programs that the Commission proposed and made extensive efforts to disseminate the resulting data. Summary documents and fuller reports have long been available free to people who request them singly or who ask to receive them routinely as published. The 23rd annual volume of the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, produced for BJS by the Hindelang Criminal Justice Research Center, including data from BJS and many other sources, was published in 1996 (Maguire and Pastore, 1997). Much of this material is now available in hard copy, by fax, in CD-ROM, or over the Internet.

1. Pretrial Statistics. The Commission proposed creation of national pretrial statistics programs on prosecution, grand juries, bail, and detention. No regular series of reports has been published on grand juries. Three series have reported data from selected jurisdictions on the other three topics. The State Court Processing Statistics Program, originally called the National Pretrial Reporting Program, conducted its first survey from February 1988 to February 1989 on jail, bail, and other forms of pretrial release (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1990). Data were collected on a sample of felony cases representing America's 75 most populous counties. The initial plan was to collect additional data in 1990 and periodically thereafter (currently at two-year intervals). The 1990 survey was published in 1992 (Reaves, 1992).

Two series provide prosecution data. The first, Prosecution of Felony Arrests, reports case processing data from selected urban prosecutors' offices. An initial report appeared in 1979 (Brosi, 1979) and was followed by reports (on varying numbers of jurisdictions in different years) for 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1986, and 1987 (Boland, et al., 1990). This series ended in the late 1980s, in part because it duplicates the State Courts Processing Statistics Program and the National Judicial Reporting Program. The second series, Prosecutors in State Courts, provides data on office characteristics and case processing from periodic national surveys of a representative sample of chief prosecutors from offices that prosecute felony cases (e.g., DeFrances, Smith, and van der Does, 1996).

2. Court Statistics. One major statistical series, the National Judicial Reporting Program, provides data on felony sentences in state courts and characteristics of convicted felons from nationally representative samples of counties. Data were first collected for 1986 and at two-year intervals thereafter. The most recent report covers 1994 (e.g., Langan and Brown, 1997). There are, in addition, ongoing BJS series on civil court statistics (e.g., DeFrances, et al., 1995) and federal justice statistics (e.g., Scalia, 1996). BJS also provides funding to the National Center for State Courts for annual statistical reports on state court caseloads.

This is the one area in which the Census Bureau, in the Wickersham Commission's aftermath, attempted to establish a national statistics system. The national judicial statistics program, never comprehensive, was abandoned in 1946; Alpert (1948) tells the full story.

3. Probation and Parole Statistics. There were no national probation statistics when the President's Commission issued its report although various organizations--including the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency--had for a decade been exploring possibilities (Lejins, 1967, p. 195). There were also no national parole statistics but serious development work for a "Uniform Parole Reports Project" by the National Parole Institutes had been underway for several years, and a feasibility study under Don M. Gottfredson's supervision had been completed in 1965; parole authorities from 29 jurisdictions participated (Lejins, 1967, pp. 199-200).

Work on probation and parole statistics went forward under the aegis of LEAA, with the first annual parole reports appearing for 1976 and the first probation statistics appearing in 1979 in a combined probation and parole report. The combined reports have continued and in 1996 were released only six months after the year-end for which data were reported (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1996b). In addition, in 1983, national prison statistics on admissions and releases were combined with the Uniform Parole Reports into one reporting system, the National Corrections Reporting System, which generally publishes data approximately two years in arrears (e.g., Perkins, 1994).

4. Jail Statistics. Except for limited data obtained periodically by the Census Bureau, there were no regularly compiled national jail data in 1967. The initial survey was a one-day population count conducted by LEAA in 1970, followed by counts compiled by the Census Bureau in 1972 and 1978 and at five-year intervals thereafter. In addition, beginning in 1982 and in each of the four years separating the five-year censuses, the Annual Survey of Jails collects data from a sample of jails to estimate baseline characteristics of jails and jail inmates (e.g., Gilliard and Beck, 1997).

Beginning in 1995, BJS began publishing combined mid-year jail and prison population data which, for the first time, makes international comparisons of incarceration simpler; most countries have combined jail and prison systems and report total incarceration data. The combined report provides a full picture of American incarceration patterns. In addition, beginning in 1985, jail data were included in Correctional Populations in the United States, an annual volume that in one place publishes data from BJS's annual probation, parole, jail, prison, and capital punishment data collection programs (e.g., Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997).

Beginning in 1972 and continuing in 1978, 1983, 1989, and 1995-1996, surveys of inmates in local jails have been conducted for BJS by the Bureau of Census. Through personal interviews with samples of local jail inmates, information is gathered on offenses, sentences, criminal histories, prior alcohol and drug use and treatment, and individual characteristics of jail inmates (Beck, 1991). The data sets have provided a rich source of information on jail inmates.

5. Prisoner statistics. In 1850, the federal government, as part of the Seventh Decennial Census, initiated the first count of all prisoners in 32 states and four territories. Between 1850 and 1870, U.S. marshals administered the census of prisoners as part of a special schedule of social statistics. Counts of prisoners were included in each subsequent decennial census through 1890 and in separate enumerations in 1904, 1910, and 1923. In 1926, under congressional mandate, the Bureau of the Census began the annual National Prisoner Statistics program, collecting prisoner statistics. This program was transferred to the Bureau of Prisons in the Department of Justice in 1950 and in 1971 to the National Criminal Justice Information and Statistics Service, BJS's predecessor. Currently, the Bureau of the Census serves as the collection agent for BJS, and the data series includes current counts of populations by jurisdiction and custody as well as admissions and releases. Counts are published annually (e.g., Mumola and Beck, 1997).

Surveys of inmates in state correctional facilities were started by BJS in 1974 and continued in 1979, 1986, and 1991. Through one-hour personal interviews with samples of prison inmates, data are collected on individual characteristics of prison inmates, criminal histories, family background, gun possession and use, prior drug and alcohol use and treatment, services provided while in prison, and other personal characteristics. In 1991, a sample of federal inmates was also interviewed. Profiles of the population are published (Harlow, 1994) as well as reports on special topics, for example, women (Snell, 1994).

B. New Kinds of Statistics Programs

The President's Commission proposed development of three new kinds of national data collection efforts: victim surveys, national recidivism studies, and "new indicators for crime problems."

1. Victim Surveys. Some observers would say that the National Crime Victimization Survey is the single most important research-and-statistics legacy of the President's Crime Commission. Whether conceived as a measure of crime trends and patterns adjunct to the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) or as a richer source of data on much broader patterns of criminality than the UCR captures, victim surveys have shown their worth. Pioneered by the Commission in pilot studies headed by Philip Ennis (1967), Albert J. Reiss, Jr. (1967), and Albert D. Biderman et al. (1967), the Commission's recommendations led to establishment in 1973 by LEAA of the (then) National Crime Survey and sponsorship of a series of victim surveys for particular cities (Sparks, 1981, provides a detailed overview of the early surveys). The city surveys were soon discontinued, but the general survey, renamed the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), has continued to the present. The survey, managed by BJS with data collection handled by the Bureau of the Census, was redesigned in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1989, 1996a), with data collected using both the previous and new designs in 1992 and the new design thereafter. Results are published annually in a short bulletin (e.g., Taylor, 1997) and in fuller paperbound volumes (e.g., Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1994). In recent years, BJS has also published a large number of special reports that draw on the survey, including examinations of such subjects as school crime (Bastian and Taylor, 1991) and violence against women (Craven, 1996). More recent special analyses draw on both UCR and victim survey data (e.g., on guns used in crime: Zawitz, 1995; on sex offenses and offenders: Greenfeld, 1997).

Considering that there were no victim surveys before the President's Commission sponsored the pilots, the NCVS is a remarkable accomplishment. Not only has it survived for nearly a quarter century, and been steadily improved during that period, but it has now achieved recognition as at least equal to the UCR as a source of information on crime trends and patterns. It has also been the model for ongoing national victim surveys in a number of countries, including Canada, England, the Netherlands, and Sweden, and occasional surveys in many countries; and it is the model on which the International Crime Victims Survey, conducted since 1989, is based (e.g., Mayhew and van Dijk, 1997).

2. Recidivism Studies. No ongoing data series on recidivism have been established that are comparable to those on other subjects discussed in this article. A general report on "Examining Recidivism" was published in 1985 (Greenfeld, 1998), as have special reports on such subjects as "Recidivism of Young Parolees" (Beck and Shipley, 1987), "Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1983" (Beck and Shipley, 1989), and "Recidivism of Felons on Probation, 1986-89" (Langan and Cunniff, 1992).

In 1997, BJS began a major initiative to collect and publish statistics on recidivism. The aim is to generate periodic national-level estimates of the incidence and prevalence of arrest, conviction, and incarceration among selected cohorts of persons entering and exiting the criminal justice system. Building on BJS's National Criminal History Record Improvement Program, the project will assist states in developing standardized criminal history files that may more easily be shared and interpreted among law enforcement agencies. In addition, through the development of common formats and conversion programs for selected states, one objective is to make criminal history files more accessible to researchers studying criminal careers and recidivism.

As part of this initiative, BJS is conducting a study of state inmates released in 1994. The study will examine the characteristics of the criminal records of inmates (both prior to their most recent incarceration and for three years following their release). As part of a collaborative effort with other federal agencies, the study will oversample for violent offenders, particularly offenders convicted of rape and sexual assault. The study will be the first national follow-up of released prisoners since BJS tracked a cohort of over 16,000 inmates released in 1983. To track offenders both within and outside of the state in which they are released, the study will link data from the departments of corrections within participating states with data from state and federal criminal history records.

3. New Indicators. The President's Commission also proposed the development of new indicators on organized crime, professional or habitual (presumably today they would have said "career") criminals, street crime, and police effectiveness. Each of these subjects has received considerable attention in research sponsored by NIJ and NILECJ, but to my knowledge none has become the subject of new BJS-sponsored statistical series.

C. Improvements to Existing Statistical Series

Although the President's Commission did not propose that the new federal statistics agency assume responsibility for the ongoing police (UCR), juvenile, and prisons statistics, it did propose many improvements in the scope and susceptibility of these statistics to various kinds of disaggregated analyses. Many of the proposed changes were made. BJS replaced the U.S. Bureau of Prisons as manager of the National Prisoner Statistics, and has steadily made the data more accurate, more comprehensive, and more timely. In addition to the annual surveys, results from four more detailed census-type surveys for 1974, 1979, 1986, and 1991 (Beck, et al., 1993) have been published. Both the FBI, in managing the UCR, and the National Center on Juvenile Justice, which took responsibility for juvenile justice statistics formerly managed by the Children's Bureau, also adopted many of the Commission's suggestions.

III. Improved Policies from Improved Knowledge?

How the influence of the President's Commission on federal research and statistics programs is to be assessed depends on the measures to be employed, and that choice depends on what, with hindsight, we believe the Commission hoped to accomplish. The most pedestrian approach is to consider whether subsequent developments honored the letter of the Commission's proposals. A second, less pedestrian, is to consider whether subsequent developments honored the spirit--the music rather than the words--of the Commission's proposals and report. A third is to consider whether the Commission's proposals and report furthered the Commission's overriding goal of improving the quality of criminal justice policymaking processes and the policies they generate.

A. The Letter

In pedestrian terms, the Commission's proposals concerning research and statistics have been markedly influential. Following the developmental paths described earlier in this article, it is not unreasonable to attribute the creation and existence of BJS and NIJ to Commission proposals. Of course, it is not unlikely that others would have proposed creation of such agencies had the Commission not done so, but the Commission did, and the agencies were created. The Commission recommended creation of a National Criminal Justice Statistics Center in the Department of Justice, and one exists in BJS. The Commission proposed creation of a series of new national statistical data series on victimization, jails, probation, prosecution, sentencing, and parole, and improvements to existing data series on crime rates and arrests, juvenile justice, and prisoners; all of those data series now exist and many of the proposed improvements were made.

The Commission proposed creation of a National Foundation for Criminal Research, as an agency independent of and outside the Department of Justice. NIJ was created and, though not outside the Department, has a presidentially nominated and senatorially confirmed director with sign-off authority. Specific research areas nominated by the Commission included criminal careers, police effectiveness, organized crime, and street crime. Work has been sponsored on all four and the first two have been major themes of NIJ-sponsored research throughout its existence. In literal terms then, it is easy to demonstrate the Commission's influence.

B. The Spirit

Observance of the spirit of the Commission's knowledge-acquisition proposals is easier to observe in BJS's history than in NIJ's. For BJS, provision of reliable, comprehensive, and timely statistical data on crime and justice system operations was the goal; and in significant respects that goal has been realized. Any human institution can be improved, of course, but few could quarrel that sources of statistical data are incomparably richer and more accessible in 1997 than when the Commission made its recommendations.

For NIJ, however, the goal was creation of an independent research agency which would catalyze a flowering of basic and applied research on crime and its causes and the administration of criminal justice, which would attract first-rate scholars from many disciplines to engage in crime research, and which would achieve levels of scientific integrity and achievement equal to the best in any other realm of public policy. It is not coincidental that the Commission and later commentators used the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health as models for what NIJ should be.

Whatever else NIJ has been, it has not been an intellectually and operationally independent scientific organization like the National Science Foundation. Although it has at times, including the present, relied substantially on peer review mechanisms in review both of grant proposals and final reports, it has seldom in its history invited researchers to nominate subjects for research. Through most of its history, funding had been based primarily on topic-specific requests for proposals. During the 1980s, the topics were increasingly narrowly specified (there has been some broadening in recent years) which has meant that much of the research done has flowed from research administrators' rather than researchers' judgments of what is important; it is not a coincidence that research on prosecution, sentencing, institutional corrections, and treatment effectiveness atrophied after 1980 when NIJ directors lost interest in those subjects. Similarly, though most scientific research is strategic, long-term, and cumulative, NIJ's research agenda in many periods has lacked those properties.

Responsibility for these patterns does not rest primarily with the people who have managed NIJ. It was, after all, the Congress which elected to place NIJ in the Department of Justice, which almost inevitably resulted in the devaluing of research experience, status, and accomplishment as criteria in the selection of directors. That directors selected on nonscientific criteria, and subject to political pressures from above, did not always manage NIJ as a scientific agency should surprise no one. It was also the Congress which failed to give NIJ the resources of a serious research-sponsoring agency. Alfred Blumstein and Joan Petersilia have demonstrated that in real terms the NIJ budget was essentially flat from 1981 to 1994, and that budget contained large nonresearch components (1995, Fig. 20.1). Compared with either the public salience of crime and the amount of money spent on criminal justice agencies and operations, or the amounts of money spent on research in other major public policy areas like health or education, NIJ's budgets have always been tiny.

Thus, while NIJ has done much that is useful and has benefitted from the loyalty of many talented members of staff, congressional decisions about its organization and budget have prevented it from becoming the kind of research powerhouse the Commission intended and accordingly have undermined the Commission's objective of generating a substantial enhancement of the knowledge base for the development of better public policies about crime.

C. Better Public Policies

Were the surviving members of the Commission and its senior staff to be polled on the effects and influence 30 years later of the research and statistics recommendations, I predict that the results would show ambivalence. Certainly many positive things can be said. BJS and NIJ were created; and, despite buffeting from the vicissitudes of Washington politics, have survived and each is probably operating more effectively in the late-1990s than ever before. No informed observer could deny that the volume, sophistication, and potential policy relevance of research and statistics on crime and the justice system are incomparably greater in 1997 than in 1967, and that NIJ and BJS have contributed to that progress.

The core research recommendations--creation of a politically insulated, independent research institute inside the federal government and a number of independent regional research institutes outside it--have never been acted upon. This does not mean that NIJ has failed to sponsor important research that has advanced understanding and informed policymaking. Nor does it mean that NIJ has failed to sponsor basic research; the Program in Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods and long-term initiatives on methodological issues and criminal careers are well-known examples of basic research sponsored by NIJ. Despite these successes, I suspect that the President's Commission would be disappointed that the independent research institute proposals were, in Albert J. Reiss's terms, "still-born." Organizations like the National Science Foundation and on the National Institutes of Health are not immune from political influence--recent crime research examples include congressional pressure on the Centers for Disease Control concerning firearms violence and the National Institutes of Health concerning "biology and crime." Recent examples in other areas include successful pressure on NIH to give greater attention to women's health issues and to expedite clinical trials in relation to AIDS and HIV. Nonetheless, these are exceptional problems; and in general research, agendas, priorities, and strategies are much more likely to be set by scientists at NIH or NSF than at NIJ.

As a result, NIJ research has tended to be short-term, with emphasis on evaluations rather than on basic issues. If such research were to be criticized, the gravamen would not be that such research should not be done or be sponsored by the federal government--it should; or that the research sponsored has generally been of low quality--it hasn't; but that the federal government should also be sponsoring basic research on crime and justice processes, which by and large it has not. That is the special niche the President's Commission wanted the independent federal research agency and the regional research institutes to fill and it is a niche that remains empty.


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