What an honor to write my first message for NIJ’s flagship publication!
As this issue of the NIJ Journal goes to press, I have been director of NIJ for just over six months. It is such a tremendous privilege to direct the Justice Department’s chief science agency, promoting research, technology development, and evaluation rooted in the social, forensic, and physical sciences.
I believe that scientific evidence plays a critical role in promoting an equitable justice system and improving public safety for all Americans. That is why one of my top priorities as director is to foster research that is both rigorous and inclusive.
Rigorous research can take many forms, from randomized controlled trials and strong quasi-experimental designs to qualitative research designs. In fact, many of the best studies use both quantitative and qualitative methods. I am a big believer in these mixed-methods approaches, which I like to call “numbers plus narratives.” The numbers are important because they are the empirical evidence, but without the narratives, without engaging the people who are closest to the issue and documenting their perspectives and lived experiences, we do not really understand the context — and that context is all-important.
One article in this Journal issue, “Reentry Research at NIJ: Providing Robust Evidence for High-Stakes Decision-Making,” provides a great example of this type of rigorous and inclusive research. The article discusses NIJ’s reentry portfolio, which continually engages people on the ground — corrections practitioners, probation and parole agencies, people who have experienced incarceration and supervision, and community members — to guide data collection, help interpret findings, and identify implications for policy and practice.
Often the best way to pursue rigorous and inclusive research is through a multidisciplinary team of scholars. I think there is real value in bringing together different researchers, academics, and perspectives across disciplines and experiences, and so another priority of mine is to promote more interdisciplinary research. The article “NIJ’s Courts Research: Examining Alternatives to Incarceration for Veterans and Other Policy Innovation” discusses NIJ’s long history supporting research on alternatives to incarceration and previews the next step in that work, which will bring together a cross-disciplinary team of researchers and local program partners to examine the impact and cost-efficiency of veterans treatment courts.
To be truly inclusive, we must recognize the issue of racial inequality in the criminal justice system. This goes beyond simply throwing a race variable into a statistical model. Researchers must be intentional in looking at structural inequalities that may generate disparate outcomes based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual identity, or citizenship status. I intend to encourage studies that approach issues and problems through this type of equity lens. I am also thrilled that the W.E.B. Du Bois Program is back because it supports important research on the intersection of race and crime and violence in the administration of justice.
The article “Improving the Collection of Digital Evidence” discusses a software tool that may accelerate and streamline efforts to identify children in videos of sexual exploitation, and a technology that will provide law enforcement with a portable, scalable, cost-efficient tool for examining complex networks. Both are currently being independently evaluated to help ensure that they operate in the manner described by the grantees, they can be used for their intended purposes, and — if applicable — they are forensically sound.
This speaks to another one of my priorities, which is to infuse technology research with a strong implementation science component. We need to understand, for example, whether technology works not just in the lab, but also in the field. And we also need to measure how well something was implemented. Were individuals trained properly? Did they follow policies and protocols? Were there hiccups during the implementation process? All of these pieces of information are important to understanding and interpreting research findings.
As a science agency, NIJ’s primary mission is to generate high-quality research. But we also strive to communicate research findings in a manner that helps practitioners. My final priority is to ensure that research evidence is translated into actionable information to promote change in the field, or as I call it “evidence to action.” I’m proud that the award-winning NIJ Journal is one excellent means of getting evidence into the hands of those who can use it. I hope you find all of the articles in this issue informative, and I look forward to continuing to engage with the field to foster rigorous and inclusive research and evidence-based practices that promote safety and advance justice for all.
Nancy La Vigne, Ph.D.
Director, National Institute of Justice