Ph.D. Spotlight: Criminal Justice Institutions: Human Behavior in a System of Neutral Competence

Within the majority of courtrooms throughout the U.S. you will find statues of lady justice in all sizes. Generally, she is depicted as a woman wearing a toga in a powerful pose, holding a scale in one hand, sword in the other, and is blindfolded. Lady justice is said to stem from Greek and Roman mythology. However, the blindfold is meant to represent impartiality and the scales are symbolic in the weighing of evidence in a case. While the sword indicates that justice can be swift and final. Despite the neutral mascot of the US justice system, this institution is made up of humans who are innately social creatures that are shaped by society and the incentives that shape decision making. Criminal justice officials are the arm of the justice system that applies and enforces the law, day-to-day, sometimes by force and other times by the threat of force. However, just because these agencies have the physical authority to enforce the law, they still rely on legitimacy and their broader reputation in the community to help them be effective with their operations.

Local and state law enforcement officers are street level bureaucrats, actors known for their job discretion. However, this also means that their decision making is influenced by human incentives. My dissertation examines the human element of local and state law enforcement agencies, specifically examining the effect of elections on arrest behavior of sheriff deputies and the factors that predict the accountability of local and state law enforcement agencies. The papers in this manuscript have important implications for the role of the criminal justice system in a democracy.

As the justice system relies on legitimacy in order to function optimally, it is especially important to understand how human incentives and discretion affect decision-making since this has implications for the perceived legitimacy of our broader democratic system.

The first two papers use a nationally representative random sample of 500 local and state law enforcement agencies to conduct a field experiment to test the factors that predict the accountability of local and state law enforcement agencies. The first paper shows that law enforcement agencies are more likely to respond, quicker to respond, and more helpful in their answers to public information requests from fellow law enforcement officers compared to requests from civilians. While my second paper sheds light on situational and organizational level factors that predict the accountability of local and state law enforcement agencies.

The third paper sheds light on the electoral institutions within law enforcement via Florida county sheriffs. More specifically, this paper finds that sheriff’s deputies change their arrest behavior in the period leading up to an election. Through an analysis of 65 counties in Florida over an eleven-year span, results find that county sheriff offices increase the amount of burglary arrests while making fewer drug arrests. Through this, sheriffs, as politicians, are able to credit claim and make the assertion that they are tough on crime by increasing burglary arrests but also making fewer drug arrests, since support for medical and recreational marijuana has grown in recent years.

This dissertation contributes to overall understanding of law enforcement institutions and behavior through the lens of public administration. Through the following novel studies, this dissertation sheds light on the bias within law enforcement in their enforcement of crime and how certain selection mechanisms (e.g., elected versus appointed) can cause adverse effects. In addition, these studies look to reveal the differences in treatment and levels of accessibility of individuals in our society and the wide range of discretion that agencies have to grant access to information.

Dr. Cockerham is a graduate of Florida State University’s Askew School of Public Administration and Policy. This post is based on Dr. Cockerham’s dissertation abstract. You can learn more about this project here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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