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Improving Crime and Justice Policies—William Pridemore Says It’s Time to Look at the Evidence

When most people hear in the news that someone committed a violent crime, their natural impulse is to wonder what it is about that individual that drove them to take such horrible actions. But AAAS Fellow William Pridemore is less interested in the individuals who commit crimes – and more focused on the bigger picture. 

headshot of William Pridemore
William Pridemore, Ph.D. Photo credit: University at Albany.

His research interests evolved from sociology to macrolevel criminology after living abroad in Ukraine in the immediate years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. While in Eastern Europe, he was exposed to new, emerging data on violent crime rates, which had been under tight control and inaccessible during the Soviet era. While the violent crime rates had already been high in the region, Pridemore watched the rates spike even higher.

“The violent crime rates quadrupled in a matter of a few years,” he says. “So as I was seeing these data coming forward, that really focused my attention on crime and violence.”

After returning to the United States from Ukraine in 1995, he went on to complete his Ph.D. in criminology and lead fascinating studies exploring the impact of policy on crime rates. One example includes a study showing how the implementation of a policy to reduce alcohol consumption in Slovenia drove a 10 percent reduction in suicide rates among men. A similar study of his analyzed an alcohol policy in Russia, which showed the same effect on suicide rates. This alcohol policy also coincided with a decrease in road fatalities and alcohol-related deaths.

“That is really remarkable, I think, because it shows the impact you can have with policy,” explains Pridemore. “Together, these declines meant that nearly 15,000 deaths annually were avoided due to the policy.”

Notably, violent crime rates vary greatly across different regions of the world, providing a unique opportunity to understand the greater underlying forces that drive this behavior. Some research that Pridemore has done in collaboration with his former Ph.D. student, Meghan Rogers (now an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Iowa), has shown the importance of societal “safety nets” – policies that protect the economically vulnerable, such as unemployment benefits, housing assistance, and family support services such as childcare – which are associated with lower crime rates.

“Nations with higher levels of those kinds of social safety nets have lower levels of homicide, and that’s controlling for all the other main things that we know can impact homicide rates,” says Pridemore. “So how we treat our people matters.”

Pridemore is passionate about shining a brighter light on these issues and new findings in criminology. Upon noticing a gap in the literature and hoping to increase the stature of the field, he reached out to Annual Reviews, an independent, non-profit academic publishing company, to pitch a new journal focused on criminology.

Eight years later, the resulting “Annual Review of Criminology” journal has become a top tier journal in its field and is an important source of literature for criminology. Pridemore continues to serve on the journal’s editorial board. He is currently working with a Ph.D. student, Guillermo Escaño, on a study that examines the very high national homicide rates in Latin American nations.

William Pridemore at AAAS Fellow Ceremony
Pridemore shaking hands with AAAS Chair of the Board, Steven Chu, at a AAAS Fellow Ceremony in Seattle, Washington.

As the American Society of Criminology’s liaison to AAAS, Pridemore also plays an important role in fostering a community focused on criminology among AAAS Members and helping to organize relevant sessions at the AAAS Annual Meetings. For the 2022 convening, he helped gather a panel of experts on firearm policies, de-escalation training for police, and the implementation of evidence-based policy for crime and justice. This latest session marks roughly a dozen that Pridemore has organized for the Annual Meeting over the last 14 years, most of which have emphasized an evidence-based focus to crime and justice. He notes that current policies tend to be based on politics and emotions, underscoring the need for a more scientific approach.

“Everybody thinks they know the cause of crime, how you should punish,” says Pridemore. “But the public needs to understand that there are a lot of valuable data becoming available on a wide range of crime and justice issues, which can help people think about such things in a more sophisticated way than what their parents, religion, politicians, friends or television tells them.”

Pridemore says that many people walk into the criminology sessions at AAAS Annual Meetings looking for a fun distraction, but are surprised to learn about the careful data and advanced analyses that are being used in criminology.

“We may not necessarily change people’s minds immediately with these criminology sessions, but I think exposing people to the data and letting them know what scientists are doing…in this area is going to help them think a bit differently,” he says.

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