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Reflecting on my Time as Director So Far — And Envisioning the Future


NIJ recently celebrated a milestone birthday — 50 years of scientific efforts to advance the field of criminal justice. Now is a great time for us to look back at all that we’ve accomplished. You can read about some of our most groundbreaking research and accomplishments in the 50th Anniversary Issue of the NIJ Journal.

Given all we know, and still don’t know, about what works in criminal justice, the next 50 years are sure to shine more light on so many challenges we’re facing. So, it’s also time to envision our future.

My overarching priority continues to be ensuring our work is relevant and responsive to the needs of the field, and that we share our work as widely as possible. We are dedicated to the regular conversation and communication needed to enable the results of our work to spread into the field.

For 2020 and beyond, here are some of my key areas of focus for NIJ:  

Supporting Successful Reentry

We know that 95% of inmates in state and federal prisons will be released eventually. Because studies have consistently shown high rates of recidivism, with more than three-quarters of released persons rearrested within five years, NIJ is placing a large portion of our research focus on reducing recidivism and improving the reentry experience for individuals returning to society.

The First Step Act of 2018 (the Act) aims to reform the federal prison system and reduce recidivism. With the passage of this important legislation, NIJ has been given a key role in supporting the implementation of major components of the Act. You can click here to learn more about how we are working to implement the First Step Act.

As part of NIJ’s role in the Act, we contracted with external experts to develop a new risk assessment system for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). This system, the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs, or PATTERN, will be used by BOP to predict the likelihood of general and violent recidivism for all BOP inmates. PATTERN is a significant improvement over risk tools previously used by U.S. correctional agencies. It achieves a higher level of predictability, models risk separately for males and females, and makes greater use of dynamic factors that address the criminogenic needs of those convicted of a crime. In the coming year, NIJ will support a multiyear project to review and revalidate PATTERN on an annual basis. NIJ will continue to assist the Attorney General and our federal partners to rehabilitate them and make our communities safer.

We’re in our second year of a five-year strategic plan for corrections research. This plan established a framework to better understand the highly interrelated areas of corrections personnel—those who work inside prisons and out in the community, including those who work in preparation for successful community reentry upon an their release. We’re working to optimize corrections workforce development, enhance best practices, and examine the experiences of individuals and populations involved with the corrections system—again, looking at corrections and reentry from a multidisciplinary perspective.  

Designing Randomized Controlled Trials

Since joining NIJ, I have pushed for more of our funded researchers to conduct randomized controlled trials (RCTs), and in some solicitations made it a requirement. We know that RCTs are a powerful method for determining the effectiveness of programs with the highest degree of certainty. RCTs will continue to be a requirement in NIJ-funded research. Most social scientists consider random assignment to lead to the highest level of confidence that observed effects stem from a specific program and not from other variables.

Improving Safety, Health, and Wellness in the Criminal Justice System

We’re also in the process of executing a strategic research plan for improving safety, health, and wellness (2016-2021) within the criminal justice community. This plan is aimed at supporting anyone in contact with the criminal justice system, including employees, inmates, parolees, victims, and their families and friends, in order to reduce any harmful effects. Research included within this plan intentionally spans many focus areas, such as:

  • Enhancing safety and reducing mortality within corrections and policing.
  • Strengthening occupational and organizational activities that lead to decreased physical and mental health risks.
  • Reducing stress, trauma, and suicide.
  • Mitigating the impact of incarceration on families.

Supporting Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Research

A little over a year ago, NIJ became the new home of the juvenile justice research component of the Office of Justice Programs. Our partners at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention continue to be leaders in applying and using research.

We released several juvenile-related solicitations last year, and are looking forward to keeping you informed on findings deriving from these projects:

  • Evaluation of Juvenile Corrections Executive Leadership Training
  • Longitudinal Research on Delinquency and Crime
  • National Juvenile Justice Data Analysis Program

Combating the Opioid Epidemic

We know that opioids kill over 100 Americans every day, with tens of thousands dying of overdoses each year. Our role at NIJ is to support the field in responding to this terrible crisis. Despite the pressing need for research to guide the response to opioids, there are limited evidence-based resources available, and limited platforms to share promising practices between agencies. In addition, NIJ is aware of the growing threat presented by a resurgence of methamphetamines and other stimulants across the country.

Through our Drugs and Crime Research Portfolio, Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grants Program, and partnerships with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Forensic Technology Center of Excellence, we’re working toward improved policies and practices across the response gamut. Learn more about what NIJ is doing in this critical area of public safety.

Advancing Evidence-Based Policing

I’ve talked before about advancing the profession of law enforcement with science. With the support of organizations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, we’re on a path to ensuring that scientific findings are a powerful tool in developing policy to improve safety in all communities. We recently launched efforts to help police officers build their own evidence base, increasing their in-house capacity for useful research in real time.

Advancing Forensic Science

Forensic science has come so far, but there continue to be rapid, almost daily developments of the methods used. We know that so much of crime can be solved with the use of the fastest, most effective tools, and NIJ continues to be on the leading edge of these scientific improvements.

Not only do we support the development of new practices and tools, we help labs across the nation increase their capacity to work through evidence backlogs and increase their efficiency overall. Learn about our programs for laboratories.

Keeping the Conversations Flowing

I’ll close by saying: Let’s keep sharing this science, to spread it as far and wide as possible.

I have a new Twitter account, and I welcome you to follow me, share our efforts, and discuss among colleagues. I’ve said that research should not be isolated in an ivory tower, and this is one way we can communicate NIJ’s work. When we regularly discuss and share research findings, it doesn’t just improve operations, it also breeds new research questions and ideas.

If you’re reading this, you have likely contributed, in some way, to supporting us in our mission to advance evidence-based practices throughout the diverse field of justice in our nation. For that, I thank you! Let’s keep the conversation flowing for the next 50 years.