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The United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Programme Network of Institutes Interviews NIJ Director La Vigne

From the PNI Newsletter 3rd Issue
Date Published
May 15, 2023

What is Your Role at the National Institute of Justice and How Long Have you Worked There?

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the scientific research, development and evaluation agency of the United States Department of Justice. NIJ advances justice by strengthening the scientific tools and discoveries that support the American criminal justice system. Most of our work is conducted through the issuance of research grants to colleges, universities and research institutes.

I assumed the role of NIJ director after my appointment by President Joseph R. Biden in March 2022. I am a PhD researcher by training with a background in public policy and experience leading research teams in both government and non-profit settings. Becoming director of NIJ was a homecoming for me. More than two decades ago, I was a senior social scientist at NIJ and developed and led a centre dedicated to research on the spatial analysis of crime and criminal behaviour. I have dedicated my career to developing and using research evidence to improve the effectiveness and fairness of the justice system.

NIJ is mandated by the U.S. Congress to provide objective and independent knowledge and resources that inform the decision-making of justice system actors, particularly at the state and local levels. My role as director is to ensure that the institute invests in research that addresses today’s problems while working toward a safer future, then disseminating that research widely.

How Many People Work at NIJ and What is the Mix of Roles?

We currently have over 60 federal staff positions and dozens of contractors and are growing rapidly, bringing on many new staff thanks to President Biden’s strong support of NIJ’s mission. Our staff include an array of experts — social scientists, engineers, physical and forensic scientists, computer scientists, and others — who help determine the research we will seek to fund and ensure that the research we have funded remains on track. Staff scientists also engage in their own research.

Our agency’s grant managers work with NIJ funding recipients to ensure that they meet the performance goals of their grants while complying with statutory, regulatory, and agency rules and guidelines. NIJ’s administrative and budget staff track and help formulate NIJ’s annual budget and manage contracts and overall operations. And NIJ’s communications team works with science staff to disseminate new research to justice system policymakers and practitioners. Our criminal justice stakeholders use the science shared by NIJ to inform improvements to justice policies and practices.

Who Are NIJ's Key Stakeholders and How Do You Interact with Them?

NIJ has several key stakeholders, and the nature of our interaction with them varies.

Our primary stakeholders are justice system professionals at the state, local, federal and tribal levels. NIJ closely collaborates with law enforcement, correctional agencies, tribal justice agencies, victims’ rights groups, school safety organizations and others to develop research that helps articulate their needs and deliver evidence-based solutions.

Another key stakeholder is the U.S. Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Merrick Garland. NIJ works closely with components and agencies within the Justice Department to inform issues of great importance for the criminal justice system in the United States. NIJ regularly responds to priority information requests from the White House, briefing staff on pressing issues and important research findings and pursuing research areas reflecting the president’s priorities and interests.

The U.S. Congress funds NIJ operations and congressional committees mandate and fund research on specific subject matters. NIJ regularly briefs congressional committees and staff on issues of interest, reports on research findings, and provides annual reports to Congress.

What Drew You To Your Current Role?

I feel very fortunate to have been appointed to this position. This is a highly influential role that enables me to set priorities not just for research investments but also for how research is conducted and disseminated. It’s a tremendous opportunity to make a real difference in the world!

What Does a Regular Day Look Like for You?

We have a fast-paced and varied work environment at NIJ, so no two days are alike. I lead strategic planning for the agency, develop and implement internal policies, engage with my counterparts across the federal government and do a fair amount of travel, presenting to our various research and practitioner stakeholders throughout the country.

What Research / Teaching Areas Will Be Key for NIJ Over the Next 12 Months?

Research and presentations reflecting NIJ’s new research priorities will be a primary focus over the next year. My priorities are to:

  • Foster rigorous research to promote safer communities and more equitable justice systems
  • Promote inclusive research that engages people closest to the issues, such as community members, crime survivors, criminal justice practitioners and people who have experienced incarceration
  • Elevate studies that apply a racial equity lens
  • Ensure that evaluations of justice programs and policies include attention to implementation fidelity and unintended consequences
  • Encourage interdisciplinary research
  • Ensure that research evidence is translated into actionable information

What's the Most Interesting Research NIJ Has Undertaken Recently?

The findings of an NIJ-sponsored study on new forensics methods that forensic medical examiners can use to detect bruising on victims of assault who have dark skin pigmentation more accurately are extremely compelling to me. The study found that an alternative method using violet light and yellow goggles is five times more likely to detect bruising on women with dark skin colour. The study raises important questions about the degree to which forensic methodologies were developed by and for white people, resulting in unequal justice system outcomes for people with darker skin tones. When a woman with dark skin pigmentation reports her experience as an assault victim and traditional methodologies do not afford nurse practitioners with the ability to detect and document the nature of her injuries, investigations are compromised and cases are less likely to be prosecuted.

The study itself is a prime example of the value of interdisciplinary research — in this case drawing from both the forensic and social sciences. Employing a randomized controlled trial design enabled researchers to discern statistically significant differences in outcomes with no threats to internal validity. Importantly, the elegant study design enabled documentation of the impact of employing different colored lights and goggles, varying their use on women of different skin tones and tracking detection accuracy over time as bruising changed in color and size. It is also notable that the study team included people with first-hand experience as forensic nurse practitioners and thus understood that bruises manifest differently on different skin pigmentations and over time.

Finally, these research findings make a strong case that forensic examinations and documentation should be approached through a racial equity lens using the correct methodology for each individual. It is essential that these findings and pigmentation-specific methods are disseminated throughout the United States to ensure that justice is served for all victims and not just those with light skin tones.

What Would Your “Elevator Pitch” Be to Promote the Work of NIJ?

NIJ fosters research that can improve the criminal justice system and promote greater safety and equity for all. Literally thousands of NIJ research projects over our 50-plus year existence have made a meaningful difference for law enforcement officers, victims of crimes, courts and their staff, correctional facilities, and those who are incarcerated or serving community confinement. Just a few examples would be advancements in forensic DNA identification technology; enhancement of ballistic vests and materials; studies driving evidence-based reforms of law enforcement policy and practice; development of model programming to identify and support crime victims and their rights; critical school safety research; cutting-edge studies on the causes, effects, and potential answers to gun violence; scientific approaches to stopping terrorism and domestic extremism; and the creation and refinement of hundreds of forensic tools and programmes to fight crime on U.S. streets.

Are There Any Major Events Involving NIJ in the Next 12 Months?

For the first time in more than a decade, NIJ will be hosting a national research conference in May 2023. This is a tremendous undertaking, but we are all excited about it. The theme of the conference is “evidence to action,” and our goal is to bring researchers and practitioners together to learn about the latest research evidence and how it can be implemented to promote safety, equity and justice. 

What New or Emerging Areas of Research Are You Interested in Exploring?

Broadly speaking, and without excluding other areas of interest, I have a strong interest in research that approaches issues and problems through an equity lens. That means that researchers should be intentional in examining potential structural inequalities that may generate disparate outcomes based on one’s gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual identity or citizenship status, regardless of the research topic.

What New Areas of Teaching and Learning Are You Interested in Exploring?

I’m interested in promoting the extraordinary value of mixed-methods research that combines both quantitative and qualitative approaches. Quantitative research analyses specific information in terms of quantities or numbers. Even the finest quantitative research, however, lacks context absent engagement with people who are closest to the research or problem under study. Qualitative research — such as interviews, case studies, and observational studies — can help inform the interpretation of quantitative findings. This type of “numbers plus narratives” approach creates a human narrative and enables us to gain insights that quantitative analysis alone cannot achieve.

How Does the COVID-19 Epidemic Impact the Work of Your Organization? And the Response of Your Organization in Addressing Challenges Posed by COVID-19?

Covid-19 dramatically impacted the workforce in the United States, including the federal government. When Covid-19 restrictions began in March 2020, the totality of NIJ’s workforce shifted from fully operating in an office environment to fully operating in a remote, telework situation literally overnight. NIJ had to quickly identify the best solutions to successfully transition an entire workforce from an office environment to a home environment, with the safety and health of our staff as a top priority. The challenges consisted of both internal and external issues. Internally, NIJ immediately established new communication protocols to ensure connectivity and camaraderie among our staff; discussed flexible working hours and arrangements to accommodate the many different situations our staff faced; identified technical support and solutions to our newly mobile staff; and set expectations to help us all navigate this new environment.

Externally, NIJ ensured that we continued to meet the needs of our grantees and contractors, who were also pivoting and adjusting to a new normal. For example, researchers could no longer conduct in-person data collection, participate in onsite visits or conduct other typical research activities. NIJ helped our grantees and contractors shift to other data collection methods such as electronic surveys or telephone interviews to keep their research and evaluation work as active as possible. I’m pleased to report that NIJ has successfully kept its research and evaluation activities on track and prevented the loss of critical data.

Apart from the Challenges, Do You Find any Opportunities Have Arisen from the COVID-19 Situation?

So many good things arose from the Covid-19 experience! Most importantly, we learned that as a collective we were able to address incredibly challenging situations. The NIJ team learned how to leverage each other’s strengths to identify creative and innovative solutions to never-before encountered problems. As a result, the NIJ team has increased its confidence in tackling new issues and has become more solution driven. Covid also presents an opportunity to support research on natural experiments that resulted from the pandemic, such as its impact on crime and how the pandemic’s expedited release of people from correctional settings affected outcomes for those individuals specifically and public safety in general.

What Are the Advantages/Disadvantages of Being a Member of the PNI?

NIJ serves as one of 18 Programme Network Institutes worldwide for the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Programme Network (UN PNI). Currently, NIJ is the only PNI within the United States. As a PNI, NIJ has a significant opportunity to assist the international community in strengthening cooperation in crucial areas of crime prevention and criminal justice and stands ready to engage in information exchange, research consultation, training provision and public education. For example, this May NIJ will be co-coordinating with the Thailand Institute of Justice to convene a workshop at the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice titled Enhancing the Functioning of the Criminal Justice System to Ensure Access to Justice and to Realize a Safe and Secure Society. NIJ will use this opportunity to network extensively with international criminal justice research and practice colleagues. We hope to identify strategies being used successfully in other countries — such as matters related to addressing the opiate epidemic, human trafficking and other topical areas where international efforts have experienced successes — that could advance similar efforts in the United States and inform NIJ’s research and strategic investments. NIJ not only assists our fellow PNI partners in providing these services, but we are also tremendously fortunate to benefit from theirs!

Are You Working with Other PNI Partners at the Moment?

In addition to what I just discussed above, NIJ and the Korean Institute of Criminology and Justice signed a Memorandum of Understanding in November 2019. The MOU details commitments from NIJ and KICJ to collaborate beyond our agencies’ current efforts as PNI partners. Both of our institutes support research that is critical to improving public safety and the criminal justice system in our nations. As an example, NIJ and KICJ are collaborating on a research panel for the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology. Our continued collaboration is essential as NIJ continues to foster a relationship with KICJ and our other international partners.

What Are the Challenging Parts of Your Job?

It is my personal philosophy that there are no real challenges, just different types of opportunities. I look forward to seizing opportunities through my role as NIJ director to promote the relevance and impact of science on all those affected by the U.S. justice system.

Date Published: May 15, 2023