Law in Action and the Modern Criminal Justice Paradigm

By Eric Taylor, Evening Reference Librarian


The UW Law School has long been noted as a pioneer in the field of criminal justice research, reform, and practice.  Professors such as Frank J. Remington, Herman Goldstein, and Marygold S. Melli led the way forward.

The current issue of the American Bar Foundation’s Researching Law (Spring 2020) is devoted in large part to UW Law’s impact on the practice of applying empirical research to real world situations and decision-making in studying the administration of the criminal justice system.  In particular, the seminal American Bar Foundation Survey on Criminal Justice Administration (ABF Survey) conducted in 1956 and 1957 laid the foundations of the modern empirical criminal justice research paradigm.

Rather than relying on official statistics alone, the ABF Survey had researchers conduct on-the-ground observational research. Field team members rode with the police, watched prosecutors do their work, sat in courtrooms, spoke to judges, observed sentencing hearings, talked with probation officers, and attended parole board hearings to collect their data.  The shift in research methods relied on observing “the discretionary actions that took place at each decision point.”

Over 2000 field reports of these daily activities were submitted as part of this project.  Frank J. Remington served as the director of the ABF Survey, and he reviewed these reports originating from Kansas, Michigan, and Wisconsin as part of his day-to-day duties.  The findings revealed a complex interconnected system of actors shaping decisions and outcomes.  Besides the law on the books, there was a great deal of discretionary decision-making that went on, and some of “the most critical discretionary actions were made at the bottom, not the top.”

The ABF Survey was also the first to reveal the challenges and competing interests within the criminal justice system such as being “tough on crime,” and the need for justice with empathy.  Herman Goldstein was one of those field researchers.  His team observed the police in Detroit, Michigan, and witnessed police misconduct firsthand.  Racism, discrimination, and unlawful arrest were also part of the discretionary decision-making that took place.

In 1965, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice was created by Lyndon B. Johnson to fight crime and repair the nation’s criminal justice system.  Many of the critical findings of the ABF Survey were incorporated by the President’s Commission on Crime and its reports.  Remington and Goldstein were co-authors of the Commissions’ “Task Force Report: The Police.”

During the course of the 1960s the findings of the ABF Survey were published in five books, all edited by Frank J. Remington.  The last of these, Criminal Justice Administration, Materials and Cases, was published in 1969.  The American Bar Foundation recently marked the book’s 50th anniversary.  Each of the authors Frank J. Remington, Donald J. Newman, Edward L. Kimball, Marygold S. Melli, and Herman Goldstein uphold UW Law’s long tradition of Law In Action.  Law In Action finds its focus in “teaching and studying the law, not just as it is written, but as it is experienced” in the words of UW Law School Dean Margaret Raymond.

Over time, the influence of the ABF Survey was huge, fostering a new academic field centered on the administration of criminal justice.  The resulting programs and scholarship brought together collaborations with the police, the courts, and corrections on how to improve criminal justice.  The American Bar Association’s Standards for Criminal Justice was one of the resulting projects.  One that continues to this day.