When you go to the dentist, do you want them to ensure your safety during dental procedures? Of course, you do. And, wouldn’t you want your dentist to be informed by the most up-to-date data and statistics to ensure that procedures and medications are the most effective and appropriate for your teeth? Of course, you would. 

Well, wouldn’t we want the same thing for public safety?

I’d suspect so, but as a former director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the Justice Department, I am worried. Here’s why.

President Biden recently released his budget request to Congress, and while I applaud its overall approach to public safety, focusing on things like community-based groups, supporting victims, addressing the gun violence epidemic, and police recruitment and training,  much less attention and resources are devoted to building the evidence-base for this infusion of resources. 

With the lone exception of hate crimes, there was no mention of data and statistics to evaluate such efforts and improve the nation’s crime and justice data systems. Worse yet, the section of the president’s budget that focused on research and development does not mention research to inform public safety.

This isn’t just an issue with the president’s budget, which, to be fair, is a political document designed to be feasible enough to influence congressional appropriators. The president’s budget sets priorities, but Congress alone has the power of the purse. It has woefully underfunded Justice’s two science agencies devoted to crime and justice, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). 

These agencies have been under-resourced for decades compared to their science counterparts in other federal agencies. These two agencies are fundamental to informing public safety decisions. Initially created in 1969 and renamed in 1978, NIJ serves the country as the research, development and evaluation agency of Justice. BJS was authorized in 1979 to collect, analyze, publish, and disseminate information on crime, criminal offenders, victims of crime, and the operation of justice systems at all levels of government. Evaluation and data go hand-in-hand when crafting public safety policy.

Together, the budgets of these two agencies have hovered around $70 million to $80 million annually, well below the amounts provided to other federal science and statistical agencies. By comparison, the National Institute for Nursing Research budget stands at just under $200 million, and the budget for the Institute for Educational Sciences is at a staggering $800 million. 

Without question, investments in nursing research and educational sciences are crucial for the well-being of our society. But the disparity raises questions about priorities. It strikes me that investing similar amounts in understanding patterns of crime and victimization and evaluating practices designed to improve public safety are equally important.

The irony is that for decades, Congress has championed evidence-based policymaking, in many cases mandating that grant programs go to activities that demonstrate effectiveness. Yet, the necessary groundwork for such evidence lacks the financial backing it requires and deserves. It’s time to recognize that the evidence informing policy decisions stems directly from the investments made in research and evaluation and reliable, timely and accurate statistics. 

Without adequate resources dedicated to fundamental questions of what works best to prevent crime, deter offending and best serve victims, our ability to enact effective, evidence-based policies is severely hampered.

Safety is a fundamental human right that transcends political ideologies and partisan agendas. During my term as director of BJS, senators from both sides of the aisle wrote to me about expanding the collection of data on carjacking and human trafficking. By bolstering funding for research and evaluation and improving data collection in criminal justice and public safety, Congress can fulfill its obligation to protect and serve all citizens equitably. 

Investing in prevention strategies, understanding risk factors and evaluating the efficacy of interventions are essential steps toward creating a society where safety and justice are not privileges but universal rights.

By adequately funding research initiatives and improving the crime statistics infrastructure, Congress can pave the way for a safer, more just future for generations. We can be smarter about crime by being smarter about people and places. But we can’t do that if we do not adequately support the science that should guide public safety policies. Public safety is public health. It is time that elected officials put them on the same playing field.