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How does co-production improve criminal justice?

How does co-production work to improve public safety and criminal justice? Here, we discuss the role of self-governance in policing.

The study of crime-fighting and prevention was a formative period in Elinor Ostrom’s career, helping her develop the insights for which she would later win the Nobel Prize in economics.

The civil-rights act

Ostrom began studying policing across the United States in the highly tumultuous 1970s. The Civil Rights Act had just passed in 1964, and the country was embroiled in protests against the war in Vietnam.

Black communities suffered disproportionately from police brutality while state governments looked to consolidate policing under larger, more centralised jurisdictions.

Pen in hand, Elinor Ostrom rode in the back of police cars to understand how these forms of governance affected officers’ ability to fight crime and build trust with vulnerable communities across Chicago, Grand Rapids, Nashville, Indianapolis, St. Louis and other American cities.

Local police services compared to centralised services

At the core of her investigation was the locus of governance: how did districts with locally provided police services compare to those with more centralised services?

The predominant theory suggested that consolidating a large number of neighbourhood police departments into fewer and more powerful regional departments would streamline crime prevention services and professionalise the officer corps.

Ostrom discovered a different reality. Study after study showed that city residents were more satisfied with policing from smaller departments rooted in local communities as opposed to larger police departments with bigger fleets.

Co-production of crime prevention services

From traffic control to emergency response and criminal investigation, the mechanism that made small police departments more legitimate on the ground was tied less to funding, staffing or training and more to their co-production of crime prevention services with local residents.

Local police were more acquainted with residents and worked with them to identify troubled neighbourhoods. By developing more intimate understandings of area problems rather than rotating constantly across a large city, they could apply more preventative and less aggressive solutions to rising crime.

Rather than arresting a juvenile for a minor offence, officers would first address the issue with the juvenile’s family. Larger urban police fleets, in contrast, carried less trust with locals and often favoured direct confrontation, filling prisons with the young.

Centralised police departments

In cities like Chicago, directing resources to centralised police departments also squeezed out public funding for social workers, mental health clinics and youth centres, all of which were essential to the co-production of crime prevention.

These local actors served a vital function by empowering vulnerable residents to participate in community life, fostering social ties which could keep children off the streets and encouraging rehabilitation for those in need.

Public goods

Ostrom’s insights from these studies demonstrate the complex nature of what economists call ‘public goods. As we have seen, public safety is neither easily purchased on the market nor easily provided by the state.

Although states can supply police forces and markets can supply security services for private homes, achieving public safety for all citizens requires cooperation from numerous social actors to provide ongoing education, social services, and trustworthy policing.

This wider ‘toolkit’ of governance comes from the bottom up as well as from the top down. State police forces operate best in self-governing communities with high social trust where crime is less likely to arise or persist.

Mobilised communities

Simon Kaye summarises this argument nicely in his report: ‘Ostrom’s arguments for self-governance establish the value of mobilised communities that originate and develop their own approaches and systems to handle decisions, assets, and resources.

By working ground-up, they can tailor these systems to the needs of their own local context. This, in turn, creates the conditions for a healthy diversity of layered and overlapping approaches—live, contained, localized experiments with in-built legitimacy and co-production for the communities involved in them.’

Find his full report in the link below.

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The Ideal of Self-Governance: Public Policy Beyond Markets and States

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