In the preface to the new National Research Council report on mass incarceration is an acknowledgement of legendary criminologist James Q. Wilson, who conceived the project in 2008. Who better, it must have seemed at the time, to call for change in U.S. incarceration policy than a group of star academics working under the auspices of a convener of enormous stature? The incarceration rate had been rising every year for over three decades, annual prison admissions were near an all-time high, politicians were trying to out-tough each other on sentencing, no mandatory minimum sentence had been repealed since Nixon’s presidency, marijuana possession enforcement was tough, and the addiction treatment which could have been an alternative to prison for many offenders was grossly underfunded.

What can we learn from the fact that every single one of these things changed before the NRC report Wilson envisioned finally appeared last week?

In asking this question, I am not trying to diminish the brilliant people who labored to produce such an impressive synthesis of research. A number of them I regard as friends, all of them I respect, indeed so much so that I am one of the few people who is actually in the midst of reading their 464-page volume end to end. But that does not ameliorate my doubt that mammoth reports painstakingly assembled by huge committees are the most effective way for socially-responsible academics to shape public policy formation and debate.

Consider what happened between the time Wilson saw the need for report and when it finally appeared. The size of the prison population started to drop for the first time since the early 1970s and has kept dropping since. The rate of annual prison admissions fell to a two-decade low. Politicians on the right and left made common cause against mass incarceration in state after state, cutting sentences, promoting alternatives to incarceration, and closing correctional facilities. For the first time in 40 years, Congress and the President eliminated a mandatory minimum sentence. Marijuana decriminalization and legalization laws swept the land, and the intensity of pot enforcement swooned. Meanwhile, The Affordable Care Act and related reforms made addiction treatment more available than at any time in U.S. history.

Mass incarceration is far from solved, but it’s 10 o’clock in the morning after a long dark night, far too late for anyone to be startled awake by a group of academics calling for the sun to rise. The powerhouse NRC committee in short, was overtaken by events.

How could it be otherwise? Undertakings such as the NRC report require internal reviews and approvals. Funding must then be sought and obtained, and a planning committee appointed. Full panels of academics must then be picked, subcommittees formed, literature reviewed, experts sought out, reports drafted and re-drafted. It is not a process that can keep up with the pace at which public policy can change.

What can? Not traditional academic journal publishing. Though faster than writing committee-produced books, it’s still generally too slow. To provide a representative example, when I was at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, I was invited to write a journal article about the administration’s intended policies around substance use, healthcare and criminal justice. I included virtually up-to-the-minute data based on the priorities in the still-evolving drug control strategy that we were writing. A few years after I had finished my time in Washington, I noticed that the paper had finally been published. Most of its contents were by then out of date.

Given the speed of political change and the slowness of academic punishing, what’s left for the policy-interested professor? Blogging. It is the one way that most academics can get policy-relevant results out as they appear. It’s a medium that policy makers, journalists and activists absorb while change is happening rather than after its already underway. And it’s written products are of a length that busy people will actually read them, rather than nod respectfully and then set it on the shelf next to a dozen other dusty, distinguished tomes.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor at Stanford University. @KeithNHumphreys