Edwin Meese III served as counselor to President Ronald Reagan from 1981 until 1985, making him the President's chief policy advisor and manager of the administration of the Cabinet, policy development and planning. He was then appointed the 75th Attorney General of the United States, a position he held from February 1985 to August 1988. He currently holds the Ronald Reagan Chair in Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy research and education institution. Meese recently keynoted Government Technology's conference on Justice and Public Safety in the 21st Century, where he was interviewed by Staff Writer Blake Harris.
GT: There seems to be a new awareness in this country, a more realistic appraisal if you like, of exactly what government is and is not capable of solving with regard to crime and justice.
Meese: Yes, I think we now recognize that many of the major problems that are perplexing our country today are not amenable to governmental solutions. Many of these are problems of family disintegration. Many of them are an issue of values. Many of them are what can only be solved by individuals, by families and by some of the mediating organizations that we have traditionally had in our society to deal with patterning of the culture, such as schools, religious organizations and private voluntary associations.
This doesn't mean that government should not do what it can in order to alleviate the suffering. The number one function of government -- going back to its earliest days when people gave up the privilege of individual revenge for a societal protection -- was to protect the lives and property of citizens against crime and delinquency. .
GT: Citizens in America continue to be concerned about what appears to be increasing levels of crime in this country. Should we be dealing with crime as a crisis?
Meese: We have had, over the last 15 years, a general plateauing of the crime rate. Now that's good. What's bad is that the crime rate today is roughly 300 percent higher than it was in 1960, because what you had was a spiraling increase in crime between 1960 and 1980. And so we have a plateau, but at a much higher level than we had a few decades ago. The concern is that the crime-prone age group, which is 14 to 24, is going to dramatically increase between now and the year 2010 or 2015. So the future does look bad.
Now, going back to something that is good -- police have been more successful in the last few years in reducing crime significantly than at any time in recent years. A 36 percent reduction in New York City, for example. And other things that have been done in Houston, San Jose and a variety of places around the country, have all been very effective in reducing crime in the short run. We don't know if that is going to be effective in the long run. But it does show that police can make a difference. They can't solve all the problems. It is not a panacea. But there are some techniques that police can use that make incremental changes in the crime pattern.
GT: You are an advocate of using new technology to rapidly change the way that many different justice and public safety institutions actually go about their day-to-day activities. Why is embracing new technologies so important at this time?
Meese: I think that technology has two promises that, even if we wanted to, we cannot ignore. The first is that technology already surrounds us. It is growing and it is increasingly pervasive as we move toward the end of this decade and into the new century. And we can either do something worthwhile about it or get out of the way and let it progress.
The second promise is that the result of ubiquitous technology is massive and continuing change. We see this reflected in all kinds of institutions. One of the institutions where it is particularly noticeable is in the armed forces. The army came out a couple of years ago with a whole new concept, saying in the next century we have got to do things better and differently than we did in the last century. The interesting thing was that this was just after one of the most successful military campaigns in history -- the Persian Gulf war, where through technology we were successful against a much larger army.
The rapid diffusion of information enabled by technological advances [challenges] the relevance of traditional organizational and management principles. As a result, the army said it must recognize where bold change is necessary and where little or no change is needed. The same kind of statement might equally be applied to the criminal justice system.
GT: At the same time you talk about the promise, you also talk about the threat of new technology. Can you explain what you mean by this?
Meese: We have to recognize
that technology is equally available
to the criminal as it is to the forces of law enforcement. And so new technology and new concepts are available to criminals.
Computer crime -- which is a whole new area of criminal activity -- and the use of computers and other technological advances in ordinary crime is now a fact of daily life. A recent survey by an organization called War Room Research Co., which is a computer technology study organization, found that 58 percent of the companies they surveyed say that outsiders have illegally tried to get into the company computers in the last year. Interestingly enough, most of these intrusions were not by teenage hackers, which has been one the banes of computer systems existence in the past. Many of these intrusions were competitors trying to get proprietary business information which is nothing less than theft.
One of the big issues that is going to have to be taken up is to what extent the government is going to be able to step in and assist, as they do in most kinds of crime, or to what extent private business is going to have to develop a greater capability both for the securing and the prevention of crime involving high-tech instruments such as computers.
The use of computers in theft and fraud schemes is going to increase. The Internet is one of those vehicles for increased criminality. And because of the high level of sophistication of communications today, we can also see that this is going to be a matter of international importance.
GT: Talking about Internet and the increasingly global nature of crime, national borders mean less and less as far as many different types of criminal activity. In some ways, something like the Internet plays havoc with national boundaries and law enforcement.
Meese: That's true. And that's why ultimately we will have to go to a global information-sharing capability in order to deal with crime. It used to be that county boundaries were constantly transgressed by criminals. Then it was state boundaries, now it is national boundaries. Since the boundaries often don't mean anything, we have to have the capability of sharing information on a global basis. But I think our immediate task is to get up to the point where we can do it on a national basis before we start thinking about doing it on a global basis.
There are copyright issues. There are civil liberty issues. There are privacy issues. There are a lot of issues that need to be worked out and they are more easily worked out within the concept of a nation than they are on a global basis. So once we get things figured out nationally, then we can go to work on some of these on an international basis.
GT: You have a very clear vision of how new technology can greatly improve our justice system. Can you elaborate on this?
Meese: The police field is where the most progress has been made in utilizing new technology. Computers are critical in community policing, both the processing of the increase of information that police departments are now able to gain because they have much more public cooperation and therefore have much more information coming in from the public -- [and] so it can be processed and analyzed rather than merely stored. Computers have been used by police for problem solving, for developing systematic analysis of problems. They are being used for evaluation and case management as a very important part of community policing. One of the things that happens with police departments is that when you get away from recording an officer's success in terms of how many arrests he or she has made, or how many citations they might have issued, you get to the point where their success is measured by how well they serve the community. You need more sophisticated devices for evaluating those factors and that is where computers can be very important.
Computers are also very important in the investigation of crime. In an area of Los Angeles, police homicide detectives in one jurisdiction are now, through the use of computers, solving 105 percent of all the murders taking place in that locale. They are solving virtually every murder that takes place now and they are going back and taking cold cases and, by using computerized techniques -- a systematic analysis of information that is there, but that manually has never been put together adequately -- they are going back and solving homicides that took place five, six and in some cases eight years ago. And as a result they are able to counteract the deteriorating clearance rate of homicides in the country.
In New York City, they have been able to reduce crime by 36 percent over a three-year period. And computers and technology have been a very important part of that. They utilized computerized pin-mapping. They utilized computer-generated crime statistics and intelligence data. They utilized computerized live-scanning fingerprint data as well as digital photo-imaging and video teleprogramming. They increased their ability to process a large amount of information and turn that into something useful that the officers could use. And all this went a long way, along with some other management techniques and the community co-operation that this engendered, to reduce the crime rather dramatically over a short period of time.
GT: You have also advocated using technology to speed up and make the court system more effective.
Meese: The whole court process is very slow. Technology can cut down on costs and speed up the process without lessening any of the safeguards for the accused or any of the participants. And technology can increase accuracy.
Teleconferencing could be tremendously helpful in terms of saving both cost and inconvenience, as well as doing a better job of prompt judicial attention to people in custody.
Criminal history files, the rap sheets as we know them, is an area which certainly could use improvement both in terms of timeliness and accuracy. Computers provide the way to do that.
In courts, multimedia technology is available which can transform trials from being conducted the same way that they were in 1600 into a modern trial that can be made much more intelligible, much more rapid and, at the same time, preserving all the safeguards and all the rules of evidence and all the other things necessary in order to provide a fair trial.
Computer graphics, for example, audio and visual multimedia elements of a multimedia system, computer animation and interactive components can all be utilized to make information, no matter how complex, significantly easier for a jury to understand.
For example, I saw a recreation of the Kennedy shooting in Dallas where they took all the facts available and then animated ... it. Under our laws of evidence, an expert witness can be very expansive in how they explain things to the jury. And there is no reason they couldn't use re-creations and animations.
Just think, for example, if the information on DNA that was laboriously taken out over more than a week in the O.J. Simpson case had instead been presented in a single day using animation and using other similar multimedia techniques by an expert witness. There was certainly an example where new techniques for the presentation of technical information would be extremely valuable in not only speeding up the court trial, but also making the information much more intelligible, not only to the jury, but also to all the participants.
Videotaped depositions, which have already been used in a limited number of cases, could be used to preserve the testimony of witnesses that might otherwise get beyond the jurisdiction of the court, who might die or might otherwise be unavailable. And in the whole area of evidence control and retrieval, certainly new technology will be extremely important to make the court system more accurate in the way this is handled.
In corrections, identification technology would certainly do what is most important -- ensure that the right people are kept in and that people who should be able to leave the system are let out and not, as is sometimes the case, through subterfuge or negligence, the wrong people get out.
GT: In rapidly introducing and utilizing the full spectrum of new technologies now available, part of your vision is forging an integrated system where all the pieces are rapidly able to access and exchange the information they need through computer networking. Can you elaborate on this?
Meese: I like to call it a seamless system of information and communication, which is really the opportunity that technology presents to us. It starts at the earliest stage of a criminal case and proceeds all the way through as long as an apprehended individual is in custody or under correctional jurisdiction. And it even goes beyond that because the information is there in case that offender commits other offenses in the future. So the whole idea is to have timely, accurate and effective information that can be used to assist every element of the criminal justice process in an enhanced performance of their task.
Costs certainly are reduced, the ability of individual systems to operate capably are all enhanced, and from the standpoint of the individuals who may come in contact with the law, they have a much more accurate means of identification if they are guilty and a more rapid means of exoneration and release if they are not.
GT: With integration and rapid access to information which only has to be entered once -- in effect creating one giant computer-based justice system -- there are increasing concerns about civil liberties and privacy issues. Is there a guiding principle that can help us work our way through these concerns?
Meese: Yes. The fundamental principle is that your system would not allow into it any information that is already protected as private by any of the elements. But most information is not protected and ... they put it into the system in a different way using a different format, sometimes with different facts, leaving out some and adding others. So the result is you don't have a systematized way of looking at that information. So I would say that the issue is not privacy limitations or civil liberty limitations, but it is technical limitations of not being able to have these things in the same format.
If there were problems of legal access to information, then you have to solve those. You have to decide, "Is this something the system should have or shouldn't have?" But almost all the information we are talking about is already available to each of the elements in the system, but they just never put it together into a systematized way that all other parts of the system can also access.
GT: What are the fundamental barriers to actually implementing such an integrated system?
Meese: The first obstacle is people. The second obstacle is institutions. And the third obstacle is resources. In reality what we often call the criminal justice system is not really a system at all, but a collection of separate and often disparate elements, all more or less related and all more or less dedicated to the same objectives and missions. The obstacles that need to be overcome in terms of the people is to obtain the kind of commitment to change, that is too often sacrificed by bureaucratic inertia. In other words, we have always done it this way. We have to have people in our criminal justice process willing to say, "I'm willing to take a chance, to take a risk and see whether change might improve my ability to do my job." We need the willingness and the co-operation to give up personal prerogatives and try something new.
I believe that a criminal justice system based on networks, utilizing modern technology, is going to benefit everyone. It benefits the law abiding citizen because it improves public safety. It makes their communities and homes safer. The cause of justice is served because we will have more accurate identification of people who have actually committed crimes and also we have the ability to cut loose at an earlier stage those against whom the evidence is not there. We have the improved management of evidence itself. And we certainly would have more prompt, efficient and effective trials.
The cause of the taxpayer would be served because it means better utilization of resources and lower costs, getting more value for the money. And the participants in the system -- the police, the courts and the correctional officials -- would benefit because they could do a better job with less frustration and less unnecessary effort.
Technology has the ability to break down the barriers and to be a catalyst for improvement and change. We have to figure out on a more grand basis what works and what doesn't. And we need to develop a network that is capable of serving the needs of the real people while reducing and preventing suffering. I believe that technology is both the catalyst and the means that we have to use in the century ahead to make the people of our nation more safe and more free.