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Fifty years ago, 9-1-1, hot spots policing, and license plate reader technology didn’t exist. We didn’t collect substantive data on many aspects of crime and criminal justice, let alone conduct rigorous evaluations to understand the impact of interventions. At NIJ, our golden anniversary has been an opportunity to reflect on our roots and how far we have come since our inception in 1968. With this special edition of our NIJ Journal, I’m excited to share NIJ’s contributions to the evolution and progress of criminal justice issues over the past half-century.
In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson tasked a commission to examine the condition of law enforcement in America and put forward recommendations to reform our criminal justice system and tackle crime. The commission published its final report in 1967, which called for the U.S. Department of Justice to increase its grant support to state and local law enforcement agencies.
The following year, Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. This act established the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which allocated federal funding for criminal justice research as part of its activities. It also established the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, which was renamed the National Institute of Justice in 1979.
The first year NIJ awarded grants was in 1968. Back then, NIJ was still a component of LEAA. In fiscal year (FY) 1968, LEAA awarded $2.9 million — or $21.4 million in today’s dollars — split over 184 grants. Four of these grants were less than $100, and the smallest was just $45. To put this into perspective, NIJ awarded over $209 million in grants in FY 2019, spread across 400 awards. We’ve come a long way.
Beyond an opportunity to revisit stories and remember, this anniversary has also been a time to reflect on where we’re going over the next 50 years and beyond. NIJ has accomplished a lot in its first 50 years, and we have a bright future ahead.
Looking forward, I see research playing an ever more important role in how the criminal justice field operates. 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. This increased rigor will lead to a more informed understanding of criminal justice issues and the impact of our efforts to build community trust and reduce crime. The evidence-based movement has begun to take hold in criminal justice, particularly in the past decade. 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.
In July 2018, NIJ hosted a Research for the Real World seminar to celebrate our 50th anniversary and discuss the shifting criminal justice landscape and role of research within it. Our speakers included two police chiefs and two former NIJ directors; one of them was James “CHIPS” Stewart, NIJ director from 1982 to 1990. All of the speakers emphasized the great influence that research can have in informing criminal justice system initiatives. As CHIPS said about NIJ, “Too often we neglect the fact that the research that’s done here has real impacts in changing people’s lives, saving people’s lives, and restoring a sense of justice in living in America.”
The articles in this Journal highlight the impact of NIJ research across the full spectrum of criminal justice issues. Many of these issues — such as violence against women, violent crime, and officer stress and trauma — have remained problems over time. DNA analysis, artificial intelligence, machine learning, digital forensics, less-lethal weapons, and other technological developments have emerged as new fields, bringing with them important ethical and legal questions. We have seen many approaches to combating crime, including proactive policing and problem-solving courts. The articles in this issue cover all of these topics and more.
I hope you enjoy reading about NIJ’s history, evolution, and impact in informing criminal justice policy and practice over the past half-century, and learning where we are headed in the years to come.
David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D.
Director, National Institute of Justice
About This Article
This article was published as part of NIJ Journal issue number 281.