Member Profiles

Get to know the SEARCH Membership better! Read our SEARCH Member & A. New profiles are posted about every month to six weeks.

Dr. Alfred Blumstein

J. Erik Jonsson University Professor of Urban Systems and Operations Research
H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management
Carnegie-Mellon University

Read more about Alfred Blumstein

He’s a scholar, a mentor, and trusted advisor to many. He’s the nation’s go-to source for all things criminal history. Read any New York Times article that speaks of criminal history records and it likely includes a quote from Dr. Alfred Blumstein. His Wikipedia page says he is known as one of the top researchers in criminology and operations research; he has spent his career studying the link between violence, public health and criminology. Much of his work now is focused on redemption; he has pondered aloud at Membership Group meetings about the dilemma of perhaps getting too good at criminal history recordkeeping. Too good in the sense that coupled with technology and availability, a criminal history record has the power to impact a person who has been arrested well after the crime. Dr. Blumstein’s studies have shown that it is possible to estimate “redemption time,” which is the time it takes for an individual’s likelihood of being arrested to be close to that of individuals with no criminal records. Indeed, many communities and states are beginning to take notice. They are “banning the box” that asks job applicants about their criminal history background. Not that they won’t eventually get to the question, but these efforts are intended to allow job applicants a foot in the door and an opportunity to explain their circumstances in person. Dr. Blumstein applauds these efforts, especially in these times of high unemployment.

Dr. Blumstein has spent much of his career involved with SEARCH. He was the Pennsylvania Member for 12 years, and has been an At-Large Member for over 20 years. He is a voice of reason, and a respected Member of the SEARCH Board of Directors. In this Member Profile, he gives us some important historical insight into justice information sharing and talks about the role SEARCH has in this.

Member Q & A

You’ve been associated with SEARCH for over 30 years. Tell us about the conversations that took place in the seventies—when the whole idea of justice information sharing was in its infancy.

Actually, my association with SEARCH began about 45 years ago—in 1966—well before SEARCH was born. My introduction to criminal justice began when I was recruited to chair the Task Force on Science and Technology for the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. Our task force was charged with developing plans for incorporating issues related to information technology into the Commission’s recommendations. We had a very strong advisory committee that devoted considerable attention to the structure of individual criminalhistory records. That attention to a large degree was driven by the concerns raised about the ways in which J. Edgar Hoover—then the director of the FBI—was reported to have used criminalhistory records for his political advantage, and so was determined to preclude the possibility of a single national record system that could be similarly exploited. Thus, following the lead from our advisory committee, our task force explicitly recommended a decentralized record system with a directory maintained centrally. I would presume that that recommendation, incorporated into the Commission’s recommendations, was influential in creating the current statecentered system.

After the Commission’s reports were issued in 1967, I was involved in a variety of discussions about the configuration of information systems that led to the establishment of SEARCH.

Of course, the major changes have been those of technology: much faster processing, much larger and cheaper memories, and the opening of criminal history records for a wide variety of background checking. The SEARCH/BJS Task Force on the Backgrounding of America was a major effort to review those trends and the concern about accuracy of the information and staleness of information being used to handicap people who have come a long way from the incident that got them into trouble in the first place, and that has led me to some major research commitments to the issue of “redemption” for people with stale criminal history records.

I believe my first formal involvement with SEARCH occurred in 1979, when Dick Thornburgh was elected governor of Pennsylvania and appointed me as chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) and insisted that I serve as the SEARCH representative. I don’t know if I ever attended a meeting in that role because of all the other things I was responsible for, and so had Philip Renninger, the information systems director of PCCD, serve as my alternate throughout my 11-year term. I believe my first official meeting occurred when I was appointed as an At-Large Member, which I believe must have been about 20 years ago.

As you look back on your involvements with SEARCH and the Department of Justice, what are some things that you took away from those experiences that we need to be reminded of now?

Perhaps the most striking observation about the Department of Justice is the astonishing shifts back and forth and policies as the administrations change, and especially when the parties change. The important tension is between decisions based on information or data and decisions based on ideological preference. Obviously I’m much more comfortable in the former situation, but the culture in the Justice Department doesn’t always look to evidence. When Attorney General Holder met with the Science Advisory Board, to which he appointed me as chair, he declared an important part of our mission was to inject the values of science into the DNA of the Justice Department. That’s an intriguing challenge and one that we are working very hard to fulfill.

What kinds of shifts do you see regarding policies surrounding justice information sharing?

It has been impressive to see how difficult it is to share information across the different parts of the criminal justice system, from police to courts to corrections. This has been a wish for many decades, and there are still very few places that have been able to make it a standard part of their operations. Rap sheets of arrest records represent an important information source of individual criminal activity, but it’s still awful hard to get information about the disposition of the arrest and even harder to know when a lack of arrests is attributable to incarceration or to going straight. My sense is that information sharing within a functional area across jurisdictions is much easier and reasonably moving forward.

What is SEARCH’s value as an organization, and what role does it have in shaping justice policy?

SEARCH as an organization has a rich body of skills that enables it to bring various jurisdictions up to the state-of-the-art in information systems, and that is an important function. It also has the special macro perspective to provide guidance to states, counties, and even cities in building coherent information systems. When I was the chair of PCCD, the staff started an effort to subsidize counties to hire commercial vendors to design their criminal justice information systems. I suggested that we recruit SEARCH to design a standard management information system to be made available to jurisdictions throughout the state at negligible cost and with a modicum of training. That worked extremely well and represented a good model for SEARCH’s contribution. There is inevitably some tension between the role of SEARCH as a professional information technology organization and its representation of its Membership Group whose members have their own interests. With the backing of the Membership Group and the technological expertise of the staff, SEARCH can play a most important role in shaping the nation’s criminal justice information policies.

What changes would you like to see happen regarding information sharing within the justice and public safety communities?

The changes I would most like to see involves integration of the data across the functional areas of the criminal justice system. I have that particular orientation because of my research interests in criminal careers, and one needs continuity of information across the segments, as I have indicated earlier.

Following up on that, what is the biggest obstacle?

I think the biggest obstacle usually derives primarily from the courts, which cling fiercely to their independence and to the separateness of their data. It has been impressive how much effort has been devoted to generating court-based disposition information on rap sheets and how hard it has been to go beyond 80% coverage. Also, as I indicated earlier, I would very much like to link time-served information to the rap sheets, and that requires a level of accommodation with corrections agencies, which also have been pursuing their own agendas.

In your opinion, where should SEARCH be expending most of its energy now?

SEARCH has an extremely important role in generating information sharing across functional areas but also across jurisdictions using the opportunity provided by the Membership Group. It can mobilize the technology of the SEARCH staff and the political savvy of SEARCH management along with the connections and interests of the Membership Group to accelerate progress more than has been the case so far.

What is your favorite SEARCH memory?

There are many, but I think the leadership of Paco and the transition of his stepping down was a particularly moving event. A second one was my recollection of bringing SEARCH into PCCD to design our generic management information system.

What are your hobbies/interests?

I keep pretty busy with my teaching, my research, my service on a whole variety of advisory committees but especially the OJP Science Advisory Board—that it doesn’t leave much time for hobbies. I did a reasonable amount of sailing until a few years ago, but don’t do much of that anymore. So my major outside interest probably focuses on my four grandchildren, two of whom are now in college and the other two not far behind. One of my great joys was taking them along with me to the 2007 Stockholm Prize celebration, seeing their enthusiasm over the event, and watching the youngest one go out to the Queen of Sweden to shake her hand.