After a half-century of high crime rates in the United States, what do we really know about crime and justice? We’d know a lot more if a succession of congressional and Justice Department leaders had paid more attention to the National Institute of Justice, the Justice Department’s research agency, says a new report from an expert panel assembled by the National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences. (http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12929)
The first thorough evaluation of the agency in 33 years found that it has taken something of a scattershot approach. NIJ has accomplished much, said the panel chaired by criminologist Charles Wellford of the University of Maryland, but it has been “severely hampered by a lack of independence, authority, and discretionary resources to carry out its mission.”
A rough translation is that a combination of congressional whims and the lack of a true researcher at the helm have left NIJ without consistency through the years, as its priorities have shifted to technology issues and away from aggressively pursuing “the causes and correlates of crime and  what policies and practices work for whom, when, and under what circumstances.”
It isn’t just the National Research Council committee that is unhappy about aspects of NIJ. The panel took a survey of criminal justice researchers and practitioners, finding that their satisfaction with NIJ performance is low. Only 40 percent of those surveyed were satisfied with NIJ leadership, for example, and only 27 percent said the agency has adequate resouces. The panel said that in surveys of this kind, any score below 70 percent indicate “serious problems.”
What is missing from NIJ’s research portfolio? The committee cited several items, noting the “absence of research to shed light on the impact of policing activities on reducing crime,” a key area. In the narcotics field, the committee noted the termination (for budget reasons) of the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring program, which measured current drug use by offenders in many big cities. Getting a better mark was the area of violence against women. The committee said “a great deal of what is known today about violence against women is based on NIJ research.” One reason for that is that Congress specifically allotted funds for that research in the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, part of that year’s big anticrime law.
Overall, the committee said, NIJ-sponsored research continues in many areas, but “in others has ceased or has been sharply curtailed as sources of funds have dried up.”
What is the remedy for NIJ’s shortcomings? The committee made five major recommendations, although it’s not clear that they will be addressed in the short term. That is because some of them are structural: giving NIJ more independence and stressing “building a body of cumulative knowledge” on crime and justice reather than spending lots of effort on forensic capacity-building. That takes action or at least endorsement from Congress, something difficult to come by in this age of highly-partisan wrangling.
NIJ should be helped by the fact that its newly confirmed director, John Laub of the University of Maryland, is the first academic criminologist to head the agency. He knows the issues but he has yet to take office because of delays in his confirmation, and he hasn’t said publicly how much of the panel’s critical report he embraces. Laurie Robinson, head of the Office of Justice Programs of which NIJ is a part, has applauded the report’s stress on evidence-based crime fighting and should be a strong supporter of the agency.
A big question is how seriously Congress will take the report. Not much action is likely in this election year, but it’s possible there will be more focus on it next year. The chairman of the panel that oversees Justice Department funding, Alan Mollohan (D-W. Va.) was defeated for re-election, as was Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who has paid close attention to Justice Department issues over the years. While other members are interested, it’s not certain who will assume the roles of Mollohan, Specter, and other significant players, such as Vice President Biden. Congress has shown relatively little concern about basic research on criminal justice while it has been earmarking money for specific projects that may or may not be very worthy.
As it did in an earlier report on the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Research Council has offered a blueprint to bolster NIJ and in so doing, greatly expand what the nation knows about crime and justice. Now it’s up to the Obama administration and key members of Congress to make it work.