Studying Crime: The Next Steps


2012 National Survey of Victim Service Organizations

Until this year, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which oversees federal research on crime and justice issues, was headed by John H. Laub of the University of Maryland, a former president of the American Society of Criminology. Laub's appointment, in 2009, by President Barack Obama, represented the first time in its nearly 40-year history that the NIJ was run by an academic criminologist.

This month, Laub left NIJ to return to teaching at Maryland, making him the second major Justice agency head to depart as the Obama Administration begins a second term. James Lynch left his post as director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) last month. In a Q&A with The Crime Report last week, Lynch discussed the challenge of working under sharply diminished federal budgets.

Laub raised similar issues in a recent conversation with TCR's Washington bureau chief Ted Gest. In their wide-ranging talk, he also discussed why the agency has focused under his leadership on a narrower range of issues such as mass incarceration, how the NIJ can play a role in the national debate over gun violence, and why it took so long to earmark studies on the 20-year decline in crime.

The Crime Report: While Washington grapples with big questions of federal spending, your agency has a minuscule budget—in the $40 million annual range—to deal with a broad range of research subjects in crime and criminal justice. How have you been able to manage it?

Laub: I do believe the budget is too low given the importance of the issue of crime, and it limits our ability to do all of the things we want to do. (But) I will say that despite the small budget, a two-percent set-aside we received as part of the appropriation for the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs has given us more flexibility to operate.

The challenge is two-fold: both the amount of the budget itself, and how much of it is discretionary spending on our part. For example, NIJ has a considerable amount to spend on the DNA backlog issue, but what we can do with those funds is restricted to certain kinds of activity.

Under the set-aside, this year there was an additional $25 million for research and statistics. About one-third goes to NIJ, another third to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the remaining amount for joint projects between the two agencies.

Among the subjects we've been able to address with those funds are victim-offender overlap—the fact that many crime victims also are offenders, and vice versa—as well as research on indigent defense, metropolitan crime, and the underlying relationships between race and criminal victimization, especially violence.

TCR: Like your sister agency the BJS, the National Institute of Justice was evaluated by an expert panel of the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council as you were taking office. How has that affected your work?

Laub: The report provided an excellent blueprint for change. (It) was quite accurate in saying that NIJ had failed to develop a comprehensive body of knowledge on crime and criminal justice. The agency had tended to try doing too many things, including too many one-off projects. It needed to prioritize and focus on developing a coherent research agenda that addressed the most important topics in the field.

Let me give an example. Two of the most compelling topics in our field from the last two decades are the run-up in incarceration, termed “mass incarceration” by some people, and the declining crime rates. NIJ should be leading the research effort in both of those areas to help the nation understand what is happening and why.

I am happy to say that we have made investments in both of these areas. NIJ is co-funding with the MacArthur Foundation a National Research Council panel examining the causes and consequences of high rates of incarceration headed by my predecessor Jeremy Travis, now president of John Jay College.

In addition, this past year we supported the start of a National Research Council (NRC) project that will examine crime trends. The NRC is establishing six roundtables to consider various aspects of the crime decline.

Finally, related to the incarceration issue, this past year we also funded a new Harvard Executive Session dealing with community corrections. The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University has had a long run of successful executive sessions focusing on law enforcement, going back to the 1980s.

TCR: We've known for more than a decade that crime was going down. Why is the project just starting now?

LAUB: The issue now is to disentangle the various competing narratives [to isolate] the trends. There are several plausible explanations out there as to why crime is declining. It seems that now is the time that researchers, practitioners, and policymakers should sort out which factors have really contributed, and which ones have not. We couldn't have done this well 20 years ago, when crime started to decline. Perhaps this project could have been started earlier, but better late than never.

TCR: Isn't it clear that there are multiple explanations for the decline, not just one?

LAUB: Yes, but we should try to establish which factors are influential, and which are not. For example, it now seems that a decline in the economy did not cause an increase in crime. We need to examine issues like demographics, including immigration, and how they are related to the up and down swings of crime rates. Also, the forecasting issue looms large: what is our ability to predict crime trends, both in the short run and long run?

TCR: Are there any other major aspects of the follow-up to the National Research Council panel report you'd like to mention?

LAUB: I think the key recommendation was the need to strengthen science at NIJ. We have done several things to address that. One was strengthening our peer review process on research proposals, specifically, moving to standing peer review panels. Second, we hired a deputy director, Greg Ridgeway of the RAND Corporation, to oversee our science areas. He has been serving as acting director of NIJ since my departure on January 4. Greg is a well-known scientist in our field with a stellar reputation.

Third is the issue I just mentioned: making sure that NIJ is working in the areas of most prominence in the field. Besides the ones we discussed—incarceration and crime trends—I'm referring to things such as replicating Hawaii's Project HOPE on probation reform; and Stanford University criminologist Joan Petersilia's evaluation of California's prison-jail “realignment.” These are big criminal justice issues.

NIJ should be the leader in scientific research on crime and justice. We are proud of our portfolio of research. I believe NIJ is back where it belongs. We cannot do everything, especially given the budget constraints you mentioned at the outset. In the past, there had been a tendency to take our roughly $40 million budget and try to do 40 different things with it.

TCR: We've mentioned on this website your interest in “translational criminology.” Where does it stand as you leave office?

LAUB: “Translational criminology” is a perfect description of why NIJ exists. On the one hand, we're a science agency; and at the same time we must translate to practitioners and others what we are doing that is relevant to our field. It's a two-way street. Scientists inform criminal-justice practitioners of their scientific discoveries. Practitioners offer their unique observations that can inform scientists and generate new areas of research inquiry.

Specific things we are doing to foster translational criminology include the Harvard University Executive Sessions I mentioned, which produce ground-breaking papers that are jointly authored by researchers and law enforcement practitioners, including police chiefs. Now we are starting a similar session for community corrections.

There also is the Justice Department’s crime solutions website, now under NIJ supervision, which compiles scientific evaluations of criminal-justice programs that policymakers and the general public can consult.

Within NIJ we have established a translational criminology working group that meets monthly to discuss the issues involved. There is increasing interest outside NIJ. It is great that George Mason University in Virginia now has a journal on translational criminology. This suggests to me that this is a subject that isn't going away any time soon.

TCR: Panel discussions on this subject at American Society of Criminology conventions in the last two years indicated that fields in criminal justice like law enforcement and corrections have embraced this concept. Are there others where you think more progress should be made?

LAUB: Yes. I'd include prosecutors, judges, and crime victims generally, including domestic violence. I think the area of crime victims and victim services is fertile ground for translational research efforts.

TCR: There has been increased interest in research on gun violence since the Newtown school shootings in December. And there have been articles reporting that the National Rifle Association has inhibited research by the Centers for Disease Control. What is NIJ's role generally?

LAUB: In the past, NIJ had a large and robust portfolio of research on firearms and violence under a now-retired NIJ staff member, Lois Mock. We also funded a National Research Council panel on the subject headed by criminologist Charles Wellford of the University of Maryland that reported in 2005.

It's important to do something in this area. Last spring, we pulled together several researchers from the field, as well as from federal agencies to come together to discuss what is known about guns and crime, and what areas needed further examination. It was a lively and robust discussion. Depending on what happens with our budget for next year, I hope NIJ can commission more studies in this area. The cost of gun violence in the United States is far too high not to have NIJ more active in this space.

I agree that the area has been under-researched. One challenge is whether there is a data infrastructure available that can help produce more useful knowledge. This is an issue that was addressed in the NRC Report chaired by Charles Wellford.

TCR: It's often been noted that you are the first Ph.D. criminologist ever to head this agency. Should that practice continue with your successors?

LAUB: The director need not be a current academic but it's extremely important to have a research scientist. It keeps the focus on science, provides credibility with staff, and it's important to our external stakeholders to have someone who is knowledgeable about the topic. So I believe it is absolutely essential to have a research scientist. I should say that there were successful directors in NIJ's history who were not research scientists. But NIJ is at a different point in its history now, and I believe we need a director that has strong scientific credentials.

TCR: Should NIJ have more internal research capabilities?

LAUB: Yes. NIJ and, for that matter, BJS should be used more as a resource by the Justice Department as well as by other components in the federal government. We should be able to respond more quickly, for example, to the Justice Department regarding current gun issues or the legalization of marijuana, but we would need more researchers on staff to be able to do that well. That would take a larger budget or a shift of resources from another area.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington DC bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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