The National Institute of Justice recently hosted the 2023 National Research Conference. The event highlighted key priorities of NIJ Director Nancy La Vigne, Ph.D., to build evidence that promotes safety, equity, and justice for all. These priorities include:
- Supporting inclusive research that engages those closest to the issue.
- Conducting research with a racial equity lens.
- Ensuring research findings lead to improvements in criminal justice policies and practices.
The first NIJ research conference in 12 years — a three-day event in Arlington, Virginia — attracted more than 540 attendees including researchers, practitioners, advocates, and others.
Attendees By the Numbers
- 542 conference attendees
- 62% academics/researchers
- 17% practitioners
- 15% federal staff
- 6% advocates/associations/consultants
- Registrants from more than 35 states
- 150 submissions for poster contest
- 51 entries selected, including 32 from graduate students
- 25 student travel scholarships awarded out of 181 applications
The conference’s Evidence to Action theme reflected NIJ’s efforts to ensure that the field learns about research, trusts the findings, and is inspired to make evidence-informed changes to improve their policies and practices.
“This is what implementation science is all about,” La Vigne said.
Attorney General Merrick Garland opened the conference, affirming how the work of NIJ and its grantees informs work across the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Research is essential to the development of new technologies, policies, and programs that help the Justice Department fulfill its mission,” Garland said, emphasizing that good data and sound science are critical to the Department’s mission.
He specifically commended NIJ’s efforts to invest resources in the following areas:
- Researching and developing community-based strategies to reduce violent crime.
- Preventing mass shootings through the Mass Attacks Defense Toolkit.
- Strengthening efforts to combat and prevent hate crimes.
- Developing methods for early detection of emerging drugs.
Promoting Evidence to Action
The conference brought together researchers and practitioners to discuss the latest research findings and how they can be implemented to promote safety, equity, and justice for all.
A common theme throughout the conference was the need to bring researchers and practitioners together as early as possible — ideally, during the design and implementation phases of a new program, when dialogue can have the most impact in shaping the direction of both the research and the program.
La Vigne, a champion of mixed methods research, encouraged a “numbers plus narrative” approach to all research inquiries, particularly those conducted in communities that have a healthy skepticism toward science based on histories of being over-researched and underserved.
Conference sessions covered a variety of topics, such as youth mentoring, officer wellness, school safety, forensics, technology evaluation, correctional culture, and victims’ needs and services. Plenary discussions covered the principles of inclusive research, the significance and history of NIJ’s body armor testing program, de-escalation training and up-scaling of evidence-based programs, how science can enhance equity, the impact of DNA evidence for case clearances and wrongful convictions, and the evolution of placed-based analyses of crime.
Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs Amy Solomon described the conference’s agenda as reflecting today’s most urgent and important crime and justice challenges while also demonstrating a commitment to science across the Office of Justice Programs, in which NIJ is housed.
“Science permeates our work at the Office of Justice Programs. Our program offices are led by science-minded professionals,” Solomon said. “I hope you can see that this administration and this Department are committed to strong science.”
Inclusive Research on Display
Conference panels covered the latest findings from NIJ-supported program evaluations, including that of the Restoring Promise Initiative, a project that La Vigne says embodies inclusive research.
"We wanted to showcase topics where NIJ has invested heavily, and where we can say, undeniably, that we have moved the field, not just on the development of knowledge but on that new knowledge really changing practice on the ground and changing outcomes for people," said La Vigne.
For instance, the Restoring Promise initiative, a project of the Vera Institute of Justice and the MILPA Collective, is a national restorative justice initiative that works to transform the living and working conditions for people in jails and prisons, especially young adults.
The NIJ-sponsored evaluation of Restoring Promise found that the initiative led to a reduction in violence among participants in the first year of the study. Correctional officers in Restoring Promise programs also reported feeling safer, more comfortable, and less stressed.
Ofonzo “Zo” Staton, a training and research assistant at MILPA, said he was grateful for the opportunity to discuss the impact Restoring Promise has shown.
Staton was once a mentor in the program while incarcerated in South Carolina, but says he now represents not only himself in speaking about the benefits of Restoring Promise but every other incarcerated man or woman seeking to improve their situation.
“This platform is an honor and a privilege,” Staton said of attending the conference.
A Research Conference That’s Not Just for Researchers
Practitioners, another type of key partner essential in inclusive research, participated in every session. During a session on preventing the abuse of older adults, Melissa Elliott, senior vice president of programs and services at the Area Agency on Aging in Phoenix, said she was skeptical of participating in research when a researcher entity first contacted her to be an evaluation partner.
She assumed it was just another group of researchers seeking access to the older adult population, and her initial concern was protecting those she serves. Although hesitant at first, Elliott said she valued the funding to deliver interventions and support her agency’s contributions to the evaluation.
Now, Elliot hopes to participate in future research. She believes including a practitioner partner is critical because they know the population well and can identify those who may likely be at risk.
“Practice partners sometimes have an idea of who that ‘who’ looks like, but we need research partners to help demonstrate that,” Elliott said.
NIJ and BJA Release Complementary Solicitations
During her remarks on the conference’s first day, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta asserted that public safety and equal justice are goals worthy of the most rigorous study.
“The challenges we face in criminal justice — from improving the health and integrity of the law enforcement profession to building police-community trust to rooting out hate — will require a focus and collective commitment on the part of each and every one of us,” she said. “There is no question that we need to lean on evidence and science to guide our decisions.”
To further that goal, Gupta announced a partnership between NIJ and the Bureau of Justice Assistance to launch complementary solicitations supporting research on the impact of programs aimed at improving correctional culture and training, technical assistance, and resources to support such programs.
In what La Vigne described as an exciting partnership between NIJ and BJA, the NIJ solicitation will fund research and evaluation projects examining how correctional culture and climate can be transformed to promote the safety, health, and wellness of both correctional staff and incarcerated individuals.
The BJA solicitation will provide training, technical assistance, and resources to correctional institutions in support of initiatives that transform prison cultures, climates, and spaces.
Student Research Highlighted
The 2023 National Research Conference celebrated the work of the field’s emerging scholars. Of the 50 posters highlighted at the conference, 31 were submitted by graduate students.
NIJ also awarded 25 student travel scholarships for the conference, out of more than 180 student applications.
On the conference’s second day, La Vigne and Director Alex Piquero of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, DOJ’s statistical agency, held a question-and-answer session with student attendees. They fielded questions on a variety of topics, including how to be objective in research, the importance of valid datasets for equitable outcomes, and how to disseminate research to those who can best use it.
As noted in her opening remarks, La Vigne strongly believes in investing in students. “You are our future. We're so glad you're here to listen and to learn and to network and to bring your new, fresh ideas and energy to our field. Thank you for being here.”