Leadership of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the U.S. Justice Department’s research agency, is in transition at a time when the department has vowed to stress the use of scientific principles in devising ways to fight crime.
With the departure last week of acting director Greg Ridgeway, the agency is facing its second change at the top since John Laub, a prominent criminologist at the University of Maryland, left the agency’s directorship a year and a half ago to return to academia.
Laub had been replaced by Ridgeway, who served as his deputy. But Ridgeway, a criminologist formerly at the Rand Corporation, is now heading for a position at the University of Pennsylvania’s criminology department.
The new acting director is William Sabol, himself an acting director at the department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) since James Lynch resigned at the same time as did Laub at NIJ. A brief notice of the change was posted on NIJ’s website.
In an internal message to her agency, Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason said that Ridgeway’s leaving “is a loss for NIJ and all of the [parent Office of Justice Programs] …Greg has been an inspired leader and his accomplishments have enriched the field and enhanced NIJ's reputation as a leader in the evidence-based, science-driven approach to criminal justice.”
Mason said that the Justice Department owed Sabol “a huge debt of gratitude for his willingness to pull ‘double duty’ for this interim period.”
But the continuing uncertainty about leadership at the key Justice Department agencies is unsettling to some in the crime-research community. Some wonder if it is necessary, given that Congress has removed the requirement that their directors be confirmed by the Senate.
The need for confirmation had prompted long delays in some federal appointments in the past as the White House spent time getting informal approval from key senators before sending formal nominations to the Senate.
But insiders tell The Crime Report that it still remains difficult to persuade well-known academics to deal with the personnel and other administrative issues involved in leaving their university jobs and running a federal agency. Even without the Senate confirmation, the NIJ job still involves tricky issues of dealing with Congress and other constituencies, both within and outside of government.
Several criminologists reportedly rejected overtures to head NIJ despite its prominence in the criminal-justice field.
Another issue is that the NIJ and BJS jobs have been held recently by white males in a presidential administration that has tried to recruit minorities for important positions.
Mason, the current Assistant Attorney General for Justice Programs, is African American, and reportedly the choices for both NIJ director and the Justice Department’s Science Advisory Board, are Hispanics.
Charles Wellford, who was director of the Justice Department’s Federal Justice Research Program in the 1970s and later served as chairman of the criminology and criminal justice department at the University of Maryland and president of the American Society of Criminology, said he did not view the series of acting NIJ directors as a retreat from the support of science in the Obama administration.
“Karol Mason has been very active in seeking a new director for NIJ,” Wellford said.
“It is great to see that this administration continues its support for evidence-based research and policy. I think the process the administration is using will advance the quality of crime and justice research.”
The Crime & Justice Policy Alliance, representing criminal justice scholars affiliated with both the American Society of Criminology and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, expressed hope in a statement to The Crime Report that the NIJ directorship “is filled quickly and that the appointee possesses the research credentials and knowledge of criminal justice issues and practices sufficient to serve in the role effectively.”
“Doing so,” the Alliance added, “will send a message to the criminal justice research and practitioner communities that the important work of building evidence on what works in serving justice and protecting communities is a priority for this Administration.”
Announcing Ridgeway’s appointment at the University of Pennsylvania, John MacDonald, chairman of the criminology department, said Ridgeway would lead the M.S. Program in Criminology, which was established by Laurie Robinson, former Assistant Attorney General for Justice Programs.
MacDonald said, “Greg’s leadership experience in running research organizations in the public and private sectors will continue our tradition of providing teaching and mentoring for M.S. students who seek careers in public service or academia.”
Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.