Criminal Justice Research Expands in NIJ’s 50th Year

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Research will play “an ever more important role in how the criminal justice field operates,” says National Institute of Justice (NIJ) director David Muhlhausen.

Muhlhausen, who was appointed to NIJ last year by President Trump, made the prediction last week as current and former agency leaders gathered to mark the 50th anniversary of federal anticrime research.

NIJ was established in part as a result of a 1967 report by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, which urged more anti-crime aid from the federal government to state and local justice systems.

David Mulhausen

NIJ Director David Muhlhausen

Last year, the agency awarded nearly $221 million in grants, compared with $2.9 million in its first year, which amounts to $21.4 million in today’s dollars. One grant in that inaugural year was for a paltry $45.

Muhlhausen said last week that, “As our ability to collect and analyze data continues to improve, we will see an increase in the number of research studies and evaluations conducted as randomized controlled trials.”

The director added, “Over the past decade, the evidence-based movement has
begun to take hold in criminal justice. Over the next 50 years, I see data, evidence, and research becoming not just a tool for criminal justice practitioners, but an integral and indispensable part of all criminal justice operations.”

Two former NIJ directors, James K. (Chips) Stewart from the Reagan administration and John Laub from the Obama administration, also addressed the anniversary gathering.

Stewart recalled that at the time of his nomination as NIJ director in 1982, policymakers in Washington generally had a poor impression of the impact of social science research on criminal justice. They often quoted an early-1970s paper by Robert Martinson that concluded “nothing works” to fight crime.

Stewart, a former police officer himself, took the view that NIJ could help police, courts, and corrections agencies around the U.S. verify what approaches do work.

An early experiment supported by NIJ was an examination in Newark, N.J., and Houston by criminologist Lawrence Sherman on how police officers could make a measurable difference in local communities’ sense of safety, Stewart recalled. Crime dropped in the areas studied. The study was received skeptically in Congress, many of whose members favored sending more offenders to prison as the main response to rising crime rates, Stewart said.

Stewart cited several NIJ-supported research projects that had practical results, such as the development of “hot spots” policing in which officers concentrated on proved high-crime areas, requiring drug testing for suspects who were released pending trial, improving body armor that saved many police officers’ lives, and promoting less-than-lethal alternatives than firearms for police use of force.

He hailed the development of DNA evidence analysis, which both identified suspects who had eluded arrest and freed suspects who were mistakenly accused and convicted.

Stewart, who now is based at CNA, a Virginia-based nonprofit research and analysis organization, suggested that NIJ make its future research agenda “more outcome-focused.”

Among questions that deserve more research, he said, are why crime hasdropped in many cities but increased in some, like Chicago and Philadelphia, and how former police chief Bill Bratton was able to help decrease crime both in New York City and Los Angeles.

Stewart urged studying how Camden, N.J., which once was crime-plagued, has seen rates of lawbreaking down and attracted business investments. Police Chief Scott Thompson, who also spoke at the NIJ anniversary, has assigned 80 percent of patrol officers to work in the community and has only 20 percent responding to 911 calls, Stewart said.

Laub, the former NIJ director who returned to his post as a criminologist at the University of Maryland, told the anniversary event that, “Science – not intuition or gut instinct – needs to inform justice policies, practices, and programs.” He cited several subjects on which intuition was wrong: “If you reduce crime, you will reduce fear of crime … As the severity of punishment goes up, crime will go down … (and) boot camps will reduce delinquency and crime.”

Laub urged NIJ to focus on three major areas: “the nature of crime, the causes of
crime, and the response to crime.” He backs the notion of “translational criminology,” meaning that, “If we want to prevent, reduce, and manage crime, scientific discoveries must be translated into policy and practice.”

Laub noted that two of the biggest developments of recent decades—the major increase in prison populations and the decline in crime rates—had no research portfolio at NIJ when he arrived in 2010.

NIJ supported several projects to address these issues, including a National Academies of Sciences study of the causes and consequences of high rates of incarceration, a roundtable on crime trends, and research on such subjects as race, crime, and victimization; the victim-offender overlap; police legitimacy, and swift and certain criminal sanctions.

The federal agency has funded an Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety at Harvard, in which “the leading police executives and researchers come together on a regular basis to tackle the major issues facing the field.”

NIJ also is backing an Executive Session on Community Corrections at Harvard.

Laub concluded that NIJ must “do all it can to promote evidence-based policies within the federal government” and to fund “empirical research to inform DOJ policies on matters such as immigration and crime, crime trends, drug use and crime, forensic sciences, and sentencing.” The agency “should strive to be bold and tackle the hard problems,” he said.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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