Expanding the Evidence Base in Criminology and Criminal Justice: Barriers and Opportunities to Bridging Research and Practice
In the following, I offer insight into how criminal justice research informed policy during my tenure as NIJ Director. Specifically, I will discuss four criminal justice policies at the center of criminal justice reform that were informed to various degrees by research and evaluation.
The first issue is sentencing reform. Spearheaded by former Attorney General Holder in 2013, a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system began by seeking to identify areas of reform. Coined the “Smart on Crime” initiative, given its reliance on research and the use of evidence-based programs, the Department of Justice (DOJ) set out to reduce the prison population, find innovative community supervision strategies and strengthen reentry efforts, and reinvest resources that would otherwise go to incarceration. The federal government, given bipartisan support, has invested heavily into programs like Second Chance and HOPE (a probation program with swift, certain, and fair principles) in an attempt to achieve these goals. NIJ resources were dedicated to support the evaluation of these programs across multiple jurisdictions, however, the evidence of their impact and effectiveness remains unknown or limited. To date, nearly $550 million dollars have gone to states under the Second Chance Act and NIJ sponsored evaluations of Second Chance programs have found that participation in the programs did not reduce recidivism (D’Amico & Kim, 2018; Lindquist, et al., 2018). The national evaluation of HOPE showed no significant differences in recidivism rates for HOPE and probation as usual groups (Lattimore et al., 2016). From my perspective, the bipartisan support of particular strategies with a limited evidence base may be some of the most difficult areas to advance with research. With overwhelming political support, how can research direct or redirect a program that may not be effective in achieving its goal? I will add that, this may be further exacerbated by researchers who “advocate” for programs with no evidence of effectiveness (Cullen, Pratt, & Turanovic, 2016; Cullen, Pratt, Turanovic, & Butler, 2018).