The Justice Department as 'Change Agent'


Laurie Robinson

Laurie Robinson is one of the nation's most influential players, both in government and in academe, in criminal justice. Now a professor in the criminology program at George Mason University in northern Virginia, she recently left her post as Assistant Attorney General for Justice Programs, the U.S. Justice Department agency that makes crime-fighting grants to states and localities and oversees the research and statistical arms of the department. Robinson had held the same position during the administration of President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

She spoke with The Crime Report's Washington editor, Ted Gest, about some of the major issues she dealt with in a Justice Department career that spanned nearly a decade, and about the policy challenges ahead.

The Crime Report: You led the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) in two different eras. In the current one, it has much less money to spend than after the big federal anticrime law of 1994. Does that mean the federal influence on criminal justice policy nationally is diminished?

Laurie Robinson: I don't think it's significantly different. The agency's budget now is $2.5 billion; when I left in 2000 it was $4 billion. The 2000 figure included a significant chunk of prison-building money. That was essentially a formula grant program. It could have been a smaller program or a larger program, but the policy interaction with the states would have been the same.

To me, the federal role in criminal justice revolves around the issues of knowledge development, knowledge dissemination, technical assistance, and support for innovation. Those are the central roles. That can involve a large amount of money or a smaller amount. It's terrific when there is a great deal of money, because the Justice Department can provide essential support for criminal justice innovations and partnerships. But the federal role depends on good, solid partnership relationships with states and localities, and credible, respectful relationships; and that has been established. So the amount of money per se is less important than what is happening as part of that relationship.

TCR: Still, have there been any areas where spending cuts have made a significant difference?

Robinson: Juvenile justice is the area where I'm greatly concerned. It's an area where we need to focus attention. We know this both from practitioners and researchers over the last decade. The investment in this area has diminished dramatically in just the last five or six years. If I could wave a wand and bring in more money, this is an area where I would invest. Back in the 1990s, we had substantially more money for juvenile justice, and I think it was extremely well invested.

Competing Priorities

TCR: Why do you think juvenile justice has suffered, budget-wise, more than some other programs?

Robinson: I don't think there is any one reason. Probably the bottom line is that there are other competing priorities in a shrinking overall budget. The Second Chance Act [for prisoner re-entry], JAG Byrne [for a wide range of state and local aid] and other programs have been funded, and the overall pot is smaller.

TCR: Do you worry that if federal juvenile justice funding continues going down, some states will opt out of the program, as they have with the Adam Walsh sex offender grants, and thus that they might not meet the federal “core” requirements necessary to obtain the funds?

Robinson: Absolutely. I think states would drop out if is not economically viable for them to participate.

TCR: Federal funding for criminal justice aid has been decreasing each year recently. Do you see this continuing?

Robinson: As I look back on 45 years of history at this agency, we can see ups and downs. I think as long as there is a federal government and there are states and localities, this program in some form will continue. The budget will go up and it will go down, and it will go up again. You have to look at this program over the longer term.

TCR: Some people have predicted that as funding for grant programs levels off or decreases, your former agency will be much more of a “technical assistance” provider. Do you agree?

Robinson: The agency has more than 50 different funding streams created by Congress. And there is a separate COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) office and separate Office on Violence Against Women. If there were some realignment of the funding streams by Congress as [legislators] downsized funding during a budget-tightening cycle, that would be understandable.

I am a huge fan of technical assistance. I think it accounts for some of the best-spent federal dollars. It can involve things like drug court judges in one jurisdiction helping judges in another jurisdiction. Or prosecutors in Denver helping prosecutors in Detroit. It's not sending experts from Washington. It is a change-agent type of mechanism to help things change on the ground. And it is low cost.

So I do see the federal government moving in this direction, but not to the exclusion of other funding. But it is true that we probably are entering the era of fewer grant programs.

Youth Violence Prevention

TCR: Can you offer an example of how the emphasis on technical assistance might play out in the future?

Robinson: Yes, the federal government's forum on youth violence prevention, started in this administration, which has operated in six cities: Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis,

Salinas, CA., and San Jose, CA. It has provided technical assistance from 6 to 8 federal departments, including Justice, Education, HHS, (Health and Human Services), and Labor.

These departments are working on the ground with these local jurisdictions, for example, in Memphis, helping them adopt a nurse home visitation program. The funding might come from the existing HHS budget. The cities might not know that a particular federal funding opportunity exists, or might not be able to match it to their needs. They might not see the connection to juvenile delinquency—that a nurse home visitation program for new mothers might have an impact years later, for example.

One program I put together that is being launched by OJP this summer is called the Diagnostic Center. It's a companion to the “what works” website OJP started: The notion is to assist local jurisdictions in adopting evidence-based programs. If you are the mayor of Des Moines, for example, and have a problem to solve, you don't think about it in terms of federal programs. But to get federal aid, you face the daunting task of penetrating the U.S. government.

Even some people in other parts of the Justice Department don't know about all of the funding in the Office of Justice Programs. The mayor of Des Moines may not have a clue.

The notion of the Diagnostic Center is that there would be one phone number that a city or county could call and say, “we have this problem, can you help analyze it?” The center would help sort things out, and in some cases could send someone to the site to help figure out what existing funding might help. That kind of assistance is the kind of expertise that local officials may need. That is the essence of the federal role in criminal justice.

TCR: Last year, the nation's total prison population went down, although by a fairly small number. Do you think this a harbinger of a trend or a minor, mid-course correction?

Robinson: I do think it is significant. Note that while overall state prison and local jail populations are going down, the federal prison population is rising. States and localities should be applauded for addressing this issue. Much more needs to be done, but work under the “justice reinvestment” concept that uses evidence-based approaches to reduce prison population is an example.

It also looks at areas like parole revocations, especially people who are sent back for technical violations where other sanctions might be used. Public safety is critical, and that needs to be the underlying consideration. But in a time of limited resources, having prison be the automatic response in every criminal case can no longer be the operative principle.

I've recently been reading Steven Pinker's book about violence over the history of mankind (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined) and I think the United States needs to be reflective in a way that we have not been about the issue of mass incarceration.

I worry that people in the criminal justice system don't have sufficient distance from this issue, and we need to be a little bit more reflective about it. I am a strong supporter of the victims movement, and crime victims issues are central to the way I think about this issue, but we have to be more creative about how we think about using prisons.

Sentencing Reform

TCR: Some people say the current sentencing reforms are nibbling around the edges—that the national number of people behind bars—about 2.3 million—should be cut in half, or more.

Robinson: I'm not going to put a number on it, but I am convinced people in future generations will look back on this era and wonder why we accepted this level of incarceration—whether this is the best way to do things. I'm not sure it will be viewed well, in the same way that we now question practices of 125 years ago.

TCR: Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia has proposed a national commission to study criminal justice issues—the first such panel since the LBJ commission of the 1960s. It's now stalled in Congress, but how significant do you think it could be?

Robinson: It could play a significant role in stepping back and taking a fresh look from a broad standpoint at the criminal justice system—issues like punishment, policing, courts, and juvenile justice. On punishment, one major question to me is whether we, in effect, have demonized offenders, making it that much harder to reintegrate them back into society. That is one reason the prisoner re-entry movement is so important. I credit (former) President George W. Bush for his support of re-entry, based in large part, I suspect, on his faith-based belief in giving people a second chance.

While we're discussing re-entry, I'm proud of Attorney General Eric Holder's Prisoner Re-entry Council, which has more than half of the Cabinet members' heading domestic agencies involved. The Cabinet members are personally engaged, and 18 agency representatives are meeting on a monthly basis. The work coming out of the council that is resulting in policy changes is significant. For example, HUD Secretary Donovan issued a letter clarifying that people with criminal records can enter public housing, and the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs has begun engaging with incarcerated veterans much sooner after they enter prison.

The interagency council is mobilizing the federal government in a way that hasn't been done before. It is an example of “pulling levers,” as criminologist David Kennedy of John Jay College has used in a different context, in a big way. It's an important initiative of this administration.

TCR: If Congress fails to enact a version of the Webb commission, would you support the idea of a commission appointed by the executive branch?

Robinson: Yes. This is certainly a potential alternative if Congress doesn’t enact legislation.

TCR: One of the Republican arguments against it was that a Webb-type commission would infringe on states' rights. What do you think?

Robinson: I don't understand that argument, since the proposed commission would have no enforcement power. I find that argument baffling.

TCR: There are some laws, such as the 1974 juvenile delinquency act, and the Adam Walsh law on sex registries, in which the federal government makes funding contingent on states' adopting certain standards. Is that a good way to make national criminal justice policy?

Robinson: My view is that I would not do that. I think making funding contingent on adopting on particular policies is not the ideal way to run a program, for several reasons: it doesn't necessarily recognize the variety of differences among the states, and it is extraordinarily difficult from a bureaucratic standpoint for a staff to administer and manage. At a time that Congress wants to cut back staffing at the federal level, I don't know if they recognize that laws like this run counter to that goal.

Evidence-Based Programs

TCR: You've mentioned on many occasions that you are an advocate of evidence-based programs. How much progress have we made on that front in the criminal justice area?

Robinson: We have made progress, but I completely agree with those who said at the recent Jerry Lee Symposium on Crime Prevention that we still have a good road ahead of us that we need to go down. If we look back 10 or 15 years, we can see that we have traveled a good way. I remember back in the 1990s it was very common for organizations to come out with lists of best practices or local programs they thought were good. This was based on mostly anecdote, however.

People are much, much less apt to do that now, because there is more understanding that programs need to be evaluated and there needs to be some kind of evidence, measures that prove things work. There still must be education on what constitutes evidence and what kinds of measures need to be produced.

I think the criminal-justice field, particularly police and corrections—the front and back ends of the system, less so in the adjudicatory part—practitioners are far, far more sophisticated about realities of evidence-based programs. The field is open to and demanding evidence-based programs.

I am given a lot of credit for advocating this when I came back to DOJ in 2009, but the field was really ripe for it. I was announcing a platform that everybody out there was ready for. Much more needs to be done, but the reception to— OJP’s “what works” clearinghouse—has been terrific.

Initiatives 'That Work'

Elected officials understand that in a time of tight budgets, they want initiatives that have been shown to work. They don't want to adopt scatterbrained ideas. We are making progress by shaping people's thinking of how to approach things.

I have had encouraging conversations with members and staff on both sides of the aisle in Congress in support of research and evaluation. The evidence of that is that a two percent set-aside of my former agency's funds for research and evaluation has been approved this year by both Senate and House committees that handle Justice Department appropriations.

TCR: How much grantmaking in your former agency is dependent on proposals that have supporting scientific evidence?

Robinson: It's hard to quantify, but OJP is looking at that kind of thing all the time. OJP has also given thoughts to OMB (Office of Management and Budget) and congressional appropriators about what kinds of grant programs should and should not continue. When I was at OJP, we turned down grant applications for programs that have been proved ineffective.

As an example, hypothetically, if there were a proposal to mentor at-risk youths with different adult mentors every week, so there was no continuity, or no training, it would not have been funded.

TCR: What about a proposal that has no evidence yet– someone saying they think they have a good idea but it needs to be tested. Are you still funding those?

Robinson: Absolutely. That is a central role for a federal agency. For example, support for innovation among those officials in states who run the JAG Byrne program is critical. Evidence-based programs should not be crowding out support for innovative proposals.

$16 Muffins

TCR: The Justice Department inspector general erroneously accused one Justice Department agency of holding a conference at which muffins cost $16 each. How did that report affect your former agency?.

Robinson: The perception, especially in view of the GSA conference scandal, which is horrendous, is that we are talking in the Justice Department about conferences for federal employees. The conferences that my agency, COPS and the Violence Against Women office puts on are primarily for state and local criminal justice practitioners.

Conferences can be a central vehicle for making connections with the field. The provision of training at conferences has been a central goal of the agency back to its founding 45 years ago as the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. At the same time, careful stewardship of federal money was a goal I had when returning to the federal government in 2009, so I have taken very seriously the notion that we should be very careful with the handling of federal dollars.

I would never claim that my former agency never wasted money. It runs or funds every year hundreds of conferences and webinars. My former agency puts on more of these events than the rest of the Justice Department put together. Last fall, after the inspector general's report came out, I issued a memo that we would no longer support payment for any food and beverage at conferences. I got a lot of negative feedback, but it seemed to me an important thing to do. It's unfortunate that we had to do that, but at a time of lesser resources, it had to be done.

TCR: Later the Government Accountability Office reported that there could be duplication of programs at your agency. What do you say?

Robinson: I thought the report was very poorly done and not evidence-based. It is true that there is overlap in some of the underlying statutes. In 50 different funding streams, there is some overlap created by Congress. There could be an effort to eliminate some of those funding streams.

Working Across the Aisle

TCR: You are a Democrat, but have Republicans supported good criminal-justice policy?

Robinson: I think this is a good time to be looking for opportunities to be working across the aisle on criminal-justice issues. Groups like Right on Crime, Prison Fellowship and any number of individual conservatives are interested in prisoner re-entry and in other ways to improve the criminal-justice system. There are opportunities for people on the progressive side to work with them. That is the future of how to get things done in Washington.

We should also consider the maturing of our field. In the past, both Democratic and Republican administrations have at times not appointed at the Office of Justice Programs people with professional backgrounds in criminal justice.

I applaud the Obama administration for appointing criminal-justice professionals. I think it's a reflection of respect for our field, and I hope whoever is elected president in November continues the practice.

Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington, D.C.-based contributing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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