In the 1960s, rising crime was a national concern. At the beginning of the decade, the violent crime rate hovered at about 160 offenses per 100,000 population. It reached 200 by 1965.
President Lyndon Johnson responded in 1965 by establishing the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice. He charged the commission to “inquire into the causes of crime and delinquency” and to recommend actions “to prevent, reduce, and control crime.” The commission’s report, The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society (1967), marked a turning point in the U.S. justice system. The genesis of the National Institute of Justice can be traced back to a chapter of the report titled “Research — Instrument for Reform,” which asserted that among all the needs of law enforcement and criminal justice practitioners, “the greatest need is the need to know.”
President Johnson created a new federal agency, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), to fund programs and initiatives aligned with his commission’s recommendations. Before this, resources for addressing crime, justice, and public safety existed almost exclusively at the state and local levels. For the first time, it was possible to sustain a national conversation and assemble a broad picture of crime and justice across the United States — which highlighted, in turn, the wide array of practices and institutions in place. Research was central for making sense of this complexity. Understanding what works in criminal justice became the mandate of the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (NILECJ), the LEAA bureau tasked with ensuring that the agency’s grants and programs were research-based.
NILECJ began and ended the 1970s with two major accounts of criminal justice research. In 1971, NILECJ released a report summarizing findings from the hundreds of projects funded by the federal government since the mid-1960s. The majority of these projects had supported law enforcement, particularly police; corrections, courts, and prosecution projects had each received smaller portions of funding. In 1979, NILECJ published How Well Does it Work?, which compiled results across five programmatic areas: corrections, community crime prevention, courts, police, and juvenile delinquency. This report outlined the difficult task ahead for the young field of criminal justice research and evaluation, offering the frank assessment that the high-quality data necessary for thorough evaluation were lacking across the board.
Also in 1979, NILECJ became the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). By the 1980s, the new Office of Justice Programs (OJP) replaced the LEAA, and NIJ remains part of OJP to this day. Throughout the 1980s, NIJ continued the work of building a robust evidence base in criminal justice. NIJ was an early and vocal proponent of using randomized trials and other experimental interventions to produce the kind of strong evidence that observation alone could not supply. Two participants at a conference on randomized experiments sponsored by NIJ in 1987 wrote, “One reason that experimentation has been rare in the past is that, more than any other technique, it requires close cooperation between social science researchers and those who operate criminal justice organizations.” NIJ was uniquely positioned to support and promote this type of research — NIJ had always been a bridge between justice practitioners and the academic community.
NIJ’s work in the 1990s was spurred by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The Crime Act’s funding allowed OJP to create new programs addressing areas such as corrections, substance abuse, violence against women, and court innovations. The Crime Act also expanded NIJ’s research activities, as NIJ was responsible for evaluating the new OJP programs. Two years after the Crime Act passed, Congress asked the Department of Justice to evaluate the effectiveness of its crime prevention funding. The result was NIJ’s landmark 1997 report, Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, and What’s Promising. The authors of the report compiled existing research on more than 500 crime prevention practices to determine their impact. Practices backed by the evidence were labeled effective or promising. Equally important, the report detailed many practices that had proven ineffective at reducing crime, offering valuable lessons learned to future practitioners and policymakers. By assigning each program evaluation a score for scientific rigor, the report also launched a movement for common standards of evidence in criminal justice that continues to the present.
The next generation of NIJ evaluation incorporated the Preventing Crime report’s use of evidence standards as well as its commitment to including ineffective as well as effective programs. CrimeSolutions.gov was launched in 2010 as a public database of criminal justice programs, all rated according to the strength of available evidence for or against their effectiveness. The site also now compiles meta-analyses to rate general practices in addition to specific programs. As NIJ looks ahead to the next 50 years of research into what works, efforts like CrimeSolutions.gov represent NIJ’s continuing commitment to improving criminal justice in the United States by translating evidence into real-world change for the better.
[note 2] Lyndon Johnson, Executive Order 11236 — Establishing the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, July 23, 1965.
[note 3] President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society, Washington, DC: President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, 1967, 273.
[note 4] LEAA was authorized by the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act.
[note 5] Here and elsewhere, this introduction is indebted to Thomas Feucht, former senior science advisor at NIJ, who generously provided background information on the history of NIJ.
[note 6] National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, Study and Evaluation of Projects and Programs Funded Under the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965, Washington, DC: Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, 1971, NCJ 064601.
[note 7] National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, How Well Does it Work? Review of Criminal Justice Evaluation, 1978, Washington, DC: Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, 1979, NCJ 064112.
[note 10] The Office of Justice Programs was established by the Justice Assistance Act of 1984. Office of Justice Programs, “Organization, Mission and Functions Manual: Office of Justice Programs.”
[note 11] Thomas E. Feucht and Jennifer Tyson, “Advancing ‘What Works’ in Justice: Past, Present, and Future Work of Federal Justice Research Agencies,” Justice Evaluation Journal 2 no. 1, 2019, doi:10.1080/24751979.2018.1552083.
[note 12] Richard O. Lempert and Christy A. Visher, Randomized Field Experiments in Criminal Justice Agencies, Research in Action, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, October 1988, NCJ 113666.
[note 13] Feucht and Tyson, “Advancing ‘What Works’ in Justice.”
[note 14] National Institute of Justice, Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, 1997, NCJ 165366.
[note 15] Feucht and Tyson, “Advancing ‘What Works’ in Justice.”