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Bureau Of Justice Statistics Has High-Quality Programs But Needs Greater Independence

July 10, 2009

 The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ programs to collect data on crime in the U.S. have generated a solid body of information, but the bureau should be repositioned within the Justice Department to provide the independence — and protection against structural and political interference — appropriate to a statistical agency, says a new report from the National Research Council.  It recommends that the bureau be moved out of its current position within the Office of Justice Programs and that its leaders report directly to the attorney general or deputy attorney general.  
 
The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) collects and disseminates statistics on crime and criminal justice in the U.S.  Its flagship study is the annual National Crime Victimization Survey, which surveys households to determine whether any household member has been a victim of crime; it is the nation’s only source of data on crimes not reported to police.  BJS asked the Research Council to review the bureau’s programs and recommend ways to improve them.
 
The bureau has sustained “major shocks” to its independence in recent years, the Research Council report says.  Among these challenges were an attempt in 2005 by Justice Department officials to alter the findings presented in a statistical press release — an incident that led to the dismissal of a BJS director — and legislative changes that have the effect of inappropriately leaving a statistical agency under the direct oversight of a program administrator. 
 
BJS should serve as a statistical resource to DOJ, not a tool to justify the programs of the department, the report says.  The bureau’s chief strategic goal should be to establish and maintain a strong position of independence.  Congress and the administration should make the BJS director a Senate-confirmed presidential appointee reporting directly to the attorney general or deputy attorney general; the director’s term of service should be at least four years.
 
BJS’ data collection is generally well-justified by public information needs or legal requirements, the report says.  However, the report also identifies several major gaps or weak areas in BJS’ coverage of criminal justice issues.  White-collar crime, including fraud, public corruption, and Internet crimes, and civil justice — including property crimes and custody disputes — are two significant areas that are not well-addressed by existing programs at the bureau.  The report notes that these gaps are sufficiently challenging that they cannot be adequately addressed at BJS’ current level of funding. 
 
BJS’ National Crime Victimization Survey and the other major source of data on U.S. crime, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, share a common problem: lengthy lag times between data collection and full release of results.  BJS should study the feasibility of compiling crime incident data already maintained in individual police departments’ electronic systems, the report says.  The new data collection is not intended to replace the survey or duplicate the FBI’s program, but rather to leverage existing local data in order to produce a quick indicator of general national crime trends.
 
The report follows an interim report released by the committee last year, SURVEYING VICTIMS: OPTIONS FOR CONDUCTING THE NATIONAL CRIME VICTIMIZATION SURVEY, which examined ways to improve the survey.
 
The report was sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are independent, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under an 1863 congressional charter. 

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