Presidential Plenary Address - Strengthening Science to Promote Justice and Public Safety

NIJ Director John H. Laub
ACJS Annual Conference
March 15, 2012

Thank you for that kind introduction, Lisa [Melissa Hickman Barlow]. I am pleased to be here, especially in New York City!

The first time in my professional career that I presented a paper at the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences [ACJS] was in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 25, 1982. The title of the paper was "Applications of the Oral History Technique in Criminology and Criminal Justice." I am sure many of you remember that paper. Over the years, ACJS has treated me very well. For instance, in 1995 my colleague, Rob Sampson, and I were awarded the Outstanding Book Award for Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life. Then 10 years later, Rob and I were honored again with the Outstanding Book Award in 2005 for Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age 70. So I am glad to be here among so many old friends and colleagues.

I have been Director of the National Institute of Justice [NIJ] for one year, seven months, three weeks, and one day now. Most of you are familiar with NIJ, so I don’t need to tell you too much about who we are and what we do. However, for those of you that might not be familiar with the Institute — in a nutshell, we are the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. Our mission is to advance scientific research, development, and evaluation to enhance the administration of justice and public safety.

NAS Report/Strengthening Science

As many of you know, right before I became NIJ Director, the National Research Council [NRC] of the National Academies of Science conducted an assessment of NIJ’s operations, research, and impact. In that report, they made five recommendations for improvement. If you have not seen the report and are interested in learning more about the recommendations, you can find the report on the NIJ website. Our response to the report is there as well. Of those five recommendations, recommendation number two — strengthening the science mission of NIJ — is, I believe, the most important.

Of course, NIJ’s emphasis on strengthening science to promote justice and public safety has a history that predates the NRC Report and recommendation. Although the NRC Report is important, our renewed emphasis on strengthening science began with the appointment of Laurie Robinson as the Assistant Attorney General at the Office of Justice Programs [OJP] under the Obama Administration. Laurie has recently left the position, and Mary Lou Leary, her very capable Deputy Assistant Attorney General, is now OJP’s Acting Assistant Attorney General. With Mary Lou Leary, I am confident that OJP will move full speed ahead with science at the center of all that we do.

When Laurie returned to OJP in 2009, she set out 10 important goals. One of her goals was to instill in OJP and all of the bureaus a focus on data-driven, evidence-based approaches to reducing crime and to restore the integrity of, and the respect for, science.

NIJ is unique compared to other federal science agencies because of our emphasis on not one, but three different sciences — physical science, forensic science, and social science. I see this as beneficial for NIJ, because few problems in criminal justice are simple and confined to just one area. Addressing various criminal justice issues often involves the knowledge and expertise associated with all three of these sciences.

Vision for NIJ

Although integration and collaboration can be a challenge, especially in “stovepipe” government, one of my goals as NIJ Director is to more fully integrate our three “bedrock” sciences. In addition, my vision for the Institute includes the following goals:

  • Establishing NIJ as the leader in scientifically based research on crime and justice.
  • Creating an organizational culture grounded in science and research.
  • Developing an innovative, cutting-edge research agenda.
  • Reaching out to stakeholders, such as ACJS.
  • Improving the diffusion of scientific knowledge.

Translational Criminology

In order to diffuse scientific knowledge to such a broad audience, it is essential that we disseminate research findings in a way that can be used and understood by those that put this research into practice. At NIJ, we share a commitment to this concept, a concept that I call "translational criminology." I first learned about the idea of translational research in the field of medicine from my daughter, who is a pediatrician. The idea of translational criminology is simple yet powerful. If we want to prevent and reduce crime in our communities, we must translate scientific research into policy and practice.

Translational criminology aims to break down barriers between basic and applied research by creating a dynamic interface between research and practice. This process is a two-way street — scientists discover new tools and ideas for use in the field and evaluate their impact. In turn, practitioners offer novel observations from the field that in turn stimulates basic investigations. This is the knowledge creation process.

By translating research evidence into sound crime policies and practices, NIJ forms a bridge between the work of research and the real-life challenges of reducing crime, enhancing justice, and promoting public safety.

Since becoming NIJ’s Director, I have sought to infuse translational criminology into all that we do at the Institute.

I have organized a translational criminology working group for NIJ staff. We hold meetings once per month. The purpose of this working group is to discuss what translational criminology really means for NIJ’s work and how we can use this conceptual framework as we move forward in our solicitations and disseminating NIJ-funded research.

One goal of translational criminology is to address the gaps between scientific discovery, program delivery, and effective crime policy. This is the knowledge application process. Translational criminology calls for systematic study of the process of knowledge dissemination and recognizes that successful dissemination of research findings may well require multiple strategies.

In line with this aspect of translational criminology, I have asked NIJ staff to focus their efforts on the dissemination of NIJ’s research results. We spend so much time and energy on the front end of the research process, but not nearly enough time on making sure that critical research findings make their way out into the field in a meaningful way. Without robust dissemination efforts, NIJ’s research will not be used the way it was intended — to inform criminal justice policy and practice. To reinforce the importance of dissemination, in Fiscal Year 2013, we hope to increase the point value assigned to dissemination of research results in our solicitations. It won’t be a large increase, but enough to let researchers know that getting this information out to the field — in a readable and understandable format — is a priority for NIJ.

I believe the concept of translational criminology is central to our efforts to strengthen science to promote justice and public safety.

New Deputy Director Position

We have taken several other steps to strengthen the science mission at NIJ. For example, we have created a new Deputy Director position at the Senior Executive Service level. This person will oversee all three NIJ science offices, have a strong research background, have a doctoral degree in a justice-related field, and will help institutionalize science at NIJ. Having a high-quality, science-oriented professional in this position is essential to institutionalizing science at NIJ, well beyond my stint as NIJ Director.

Standing Peer Review Panels

We have also instituted a pilot effort to establish standing peer review panels. For more than two decades, NIJ's peer review process involved assembling small committees of three or four reviewers for each review cycle — a typical way to conduct anonymous peer reviews. But because the panels were selected anew each year, problems could arise with consistency from one year to the next. Applicants who were offered an opportunity to revise and resubmit, for example, had their applications reviewed the second time by a completely different panel. In addition, assembling a committee could be challenging when deadlines were short.

The NRC's evaluation characterized NIJ's peer review [process] as "very weak," and urged us to look to other science agencies, like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, for better peer review models.

We took the recommendation to heart and have begun a pilot program to strengthen our review processes.

During this year’s peer review process, NIJ will be pilot testing several Scientific Review Panels — one each for criminal justice systems, violence and victimization, science and technology, and forensics. Each panel will consist of 12 scientists and six practitioners. All panel members will serve for overlapping three-year terms to provide consistency and experience. The panelists — recognized authorities in their field — will be nominated by other researchers, practitioners, NIJ, or by self-nomination. Final selection will be made by the appropriate NIJ office director. The names of the panelists will be posted on nij.gov, following the announcement of grant awards.

NIJ's new Scientific Review Panels are an important step toward ensuring that our precious research resources are invested in only the best research proposals and that each proposal submitted to NIJ receives a fair and scientifically sound review that strives for the highest integrity and transparency.

Office of Research Partnerships

Another way that we are strengthening the science mission at NIJ is through the creation of our new Office of Research Partnerships. In this time of limited financial and human resources, partnerships are more important than ever in strengthening our science mission. This new office will:

  • Initiate, manage, and coordinate criminal justice research partnerships within and outside the Department of Justice.
  • Build relationships.
  • Leverage and share resources.
  • Expand NIJ’s network into both traditional and new areas of inquiry.

Partnership-Focused Projects

We currently have several scientifically rigorous projects underway that illustrate our emphasis on partnerships. This includes an Evaluation of the Honest Opportunity Probation With Enforcement Demonstration Field Experiment — also known as HOPE — in partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Many of you are familiar with the Hawaii HOPE program. We learned from NIJ research that probationers in this program were less likely to be arrested for a new crime, use drugs, skip appointments with their probation officer, and have their probation revoked. Because this program has been so successful in Hawaii, we believe that it could be an option for other states to improve offender outcomes and reduce spending in corrections. However, we must first rigorously evaluate this program. We will do this by conducting randomized control trials in four sites, and we will focus on implementation of the model, fidelity checks, and an outcome assessment. With the knowledge gathered from this evaluation, we hope to move reentry research to the next level by expanding on what we already know and by building an infrastructure for reentry in other jurisdictions.

In addition to the HOPE Evaluation, we are working with the Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS] on a project on the mining of police data for statistical and research purposes. This project will examine the posting of incident-level data by police departments on publicly accessible websites. The project has two components. The first is to identify the agencies posting such data and recording the type and extent of data that [are] available. The second is to understand the diffusion of this innovation throughout the police enterprise. This information will be the basis of a report that describes information available on the police department websites and will be used in conjunction with LEMAS [Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics] data from BJS to investigate the diffusion of innovation. The goal is to identify “hotspots” of innovation and learn more about the organizational characteristics of police departments using data in innovative and cutting edge ways.

Untested Sexual Assault Kits

Read Solving the Problem of Untested Evidence in Sexual Assaults from the NIJ Journal.

We are also working with the Office for Victims of Crime on an action research project that addresses the issue of untested sexual assault kits. We recently awarded two research grants — one to Wayne County, Michigan, and the other to the city of Houston, Texas — to address the backlog of untested sexual assault kits, also known as rape kits. The goal is to identify the underlying reasons why sexual assault kit evidence is not tested and to develop practices to improve the criminal justice response to sexual assault. We believe that these two projects will produce transportable lessons and strategies that can help other jurisdictions that are facing similar problems.

We have also recently funded new research on redemption. This project will focus on the timing of parole discharge based on the concept of redemption. Based on the well-established fact that recidivism declines as the length of crime-free time increases, this project aims to estimate a time point when the recidivism risk of parolees drops to a level that is equal to someone who has never offended — when we say that this person has been “redeemed.” Although I had to recuse myself and therefore had nothing to do with the decision, I think it was a brilliant move to support Kiminori Nakamura’s project with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, where he is an “embedded criminologist” — a great example of translational criminology at work. This research will, without a doubt, be important as we seek to create sustainable justice, the theme of this year’s ACJS Conference.

Building NIJ’s Research Infrastructure

At NIJ, we have placed a renewed emphasis on building up our research infrastructure through our Researcher-Practitioner Partnership Program, Graduate Research Fellowship, Visiting Fellows, and Executive Fellowship Program. These efforts are vital to nurture and grow the pool of researchers involved in criminal justice research.

We are very fortunate to have two extremely talented Visiting Fellows currently with us at NIJ this year.

The first is Dr. Mark Kleiman, who is a Professor of Public Policy at the UCLA School of Public Affairs. Dr. Kleiman’s research will examine the relationship of drug abuse and drug abuse policy to crime and crime control policy, and the prospect of a revolution in community corrections that would be comparable in scope and importance to the revolution in policing that started with Herman Goldstein. With the help of collaborators and the advice of NIJ staff and others in the field, Dr. Kleiman will complete a book-length document on each topic and conduct informal seminars for NIJ and OJP staff. We had the first seminar just last month, and some say it was one of the best we’ve ever offered.

Our second fellow is Jim Doyle, an attorney from the law firm of Carney and Bassil, where his private practice focuses on trial and appellate litigation in civil and criminal cases. He is the former Director of the Center for Modern Forensic Practice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York City. He has written extensively about race and crime, forensics, and eyewitness evidence. As an NIJ Visiting Fellow, Mr. Doyle will examine the utility of the “organizational accident” model. This model presents a system-level approach to mistakes and looks at all aspects of a system’s operation to see why accidents happen and what can be done to prevent them. This model has been used in hospitals and the aviation industry. Mr. Doyle is examining how this model can be applied to understand and avoid criminal justice errors, with an emphasis on wrongful convictions.

At NIJ, we have also started a new fellowship, one that we call an “executive fellowship.” This fellowship is offered to criminal justice practitioners that have embraced research in their work and want to work with NIJ to implement the translational criminology concept in the field. Our current Executive Fellow is Chief Jim Bueermann from Redlands, California. He recently spent a portion of his fellowship “embedded” at the FBI Academy to learn how NIJ can weave research into the curriculum used to train law enforcement leaders.

Research on Life-Course Criminology

Now that I have had the opportunity to tell you how NIJ is strengthening science to promote justice and public safety, I would like to take a moment to put on my researcher hat and speak to the theme of this year’s conference – the idea of sustainable justice.

As many of you know, prior to coming to NIJ, I was involved in a long-term research project examining continuity and change in criminal offending and other problem behavior over the life course. My colleague, Rob Sampson, and I started this research using a sample of disadvantaged men born in Boston during the Great Depression era. The men in our sample were originally the subjects of the classic studies conducted by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck at Harvard Law School in the 1940s through the 60s. Through our research on the lives and criminal histories of these men, we discovered that even active criminals can stop committing crimes after key “turning points” in their lives. These turning points included marriage, military service, and employment. From this research, we learned that social connections keep people from committing crimes. As we focus on promoting “sustainable justice,” and doing more to address high levels of imprisonment in this country, let’s remember that the key is to nurture and strengthen the social bonds of the most vulnerable among us, which will in turn enhance informal social control in families, schools, and communities.

When we talk about the idea of sustainable justice, reducing high levels of incarceration is at the core of the concept. In our research studying the Glueck men, we found that incarceration had no direct effect on crime (that is, no labeling or deterrent effect was evident). However, we did find that incarceration had negative effects on job stability and poor job stability in turn increased the likelihood of continued involvement in crime over the life course. We concluded that lengthy prison terms severely damage the future job prospects of offenders. If we want to ameliorate this situation, at least two strategies should be considered.

First, those that must be imprisoned should be able to seek educational (e.g., literacy) and job training opportunities. These kinds of programs in prison enable offenders to increase their potential for post-release employment.

Second, we must seriously rethink our over reliance on long prison terms and examine the possibility that credible, strict punishments may be available in the community. This is why, as I mentioned earlier, NIJ has decided to work with the Bureau of Justice Assistance to evaluate whether Hawaii’s community-based HOPE model can feasibly be replicated for use in other jurisdictions.

Shifting back to my NIJ hat, based on my extensive work on crime and the life course, I think the major challenge is whether or not we can use the criminal justice system to facilitate turning points in the life course of people involved in crime.

Concluding Remarks

In closing, I do not want to leave the impression that I am a rosy optimist — those that know me well know that I am anything but. Nor do I want to convey the message that I believe that science will be the sole determinant of policy and practice in the criminal justice arena. So I leave you with three points for your consideration.

First, there ought to be strong tension between science and policy in criminology and criminal justice; and, given the history of criminology in Europe and America, it can be no other way. As David Garland has pointed out, “It [criminality] was a scientific problem but also a social problem to be addressed, attacked, and transformed” (1985:127). Examining criminal anthropology in the United States, Nicole Rafter (1992) noted tension in criminology as an applied discipline with the primary goal of crime control and as a scholarly discipline with the primary goal of producing knowledge about criminal behavior.

Second, the reality is most policy issues are ultimately questions about values that cannot be answered by theory or research (see, for example, Rein and Winship, 2000:4041). Daniel Patrick Moynihan has astutely pointed out that, “policymakers rarely pay serious attention to what scholars say, and they have difficultly coming up with workable solutions to the problems they do claim to understand.”

Third, despite the challenges, and there are many, criminological theory and practice will benefit from dialogue because through meaningful communication, heretofore unrealized connections across a variety of domains will be established. Such dialogue will move us closer to the model proposed by Mark Moore in which “society acts on problems not by first learning and then acting, but instead simultaneously learning and acting” (1999:312). One possible way to bring theory, research, practice, and policy together for a meaningful dialogue is to create a new mission statement for the National Institute of Justice that includes NIJ as not only advancing scientific research, development, and evaluation to enhance the administration of justice and public safety, but also translating research to practice and vice versa — what I call translational criminology.

Ultimately, the challenge for criminology and criminal justice writ large and NIJ in particular is an intellectual one (see Abbott, 1999). Ideas matter and they matter a great deal. Ideas are the core of what we do in the past, in the present, and in the future.

Thank you for your attention.

Date Created: April 27, 2012