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Remarks of Laurie Robinson, Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

National Criminal Justice Association
National Forum
Sunday, August 1, 2010
Ft. Myers, FL

       Thank you, Roland [Mena].

       I'd also like to thank Cabell [Cropper], Kay [Chopard Cohen], and Elizabeth [Pyke] for bringing us together today - and for working with us every day back in Washington. They are good friends and tremendous partners.

       It's great to be here with all of you. I always love coming to NCJA events - I think this is my third or fourth one since returning to OJP last year - I lose count. I guess I should ask Roland if there's a "Five-Timers Club" like the one they have for Saturday Night Live hosts.

       So, why did I feel so strongly about joining you today? To tell the truth, I guard my weekends pretty jealously, so I wouldn't normally be eager to speak on a Sunday evening. And let's face it, Fort Myers isn't exactly the easiest place to get to.

       So, what is it about NCJA that keeps me coming back?

       I suppose the reason is that I feel such kinship with you - particularly the State Administering Agencies. My first job in criminal justice was on a Law Enforcement Assistance Administration grant back in the '70s. My husband, before we were married, directed the LEAA State Planning Agency in Massachusetts. So, my roots with your agencies and the program go way back. The issues and the challenges that you've faced over the years are ones I relate to, and the worries you've had - whether JAG/Byrne will get funded - well, I'm right there with you, every year.

       My early education in criminal justice was about the pivotal role the State Planning Agencies played as engines of reform at the state level across the country. That was all a legacy of President Johnson's Crime Commission, which called for the SPAs to play a key role in criminal justice program and policy decisions. There was a real recognition then of how important state-level comprehensive planning was to true change in criminal and juvenile justice. And now we're seeing once again just how crucial that planning role can be.

       Fast forward several decades from the '70s. My connection with state criminal justice agencies and NCJA had remained solid. In the fall of 2008, I worked very closely with Cabell and Elizabeth during the Obama Transition. In fact, I used the NCJA offices as my unofficial headquarters. And it was there, with Elizabeth's tremendous help, that I held a series of "listening sessions" during the Transition. We brought together more than 90 constituent groups to hear their views on what the incoming Obama Administration should be doing in state and local criminal and juvenile justice.

       And NCJA was virtually the only outside group I traveled to meet with during that time. I viewed it as so important to hear your comments and receive your input. And I still remember some of your fairly critical feedback about how OJP was working - or not working. But I took those comments to heart - and I've tried aggressively to address them.

       So, all that's to say that - when Cabell and Elizabeth asked me to travel to southern Florida on an August Sunday - it took me about 30 seconds to say "yes."

       So, again, it's good to be here with you.

       I want to talk today about integrating evidence into practice and policy, and what I think that means. And I just want to thank Roland and Cabell for making evidence-based programming the focus of this Forum. And I want to thank Jim Burch and his staff in BJA for their role in helping organize and support this event. I tell you, I couldn't be more fortunate to have a group of people so dedicated to the idea of evidence-based programming as Jim and his terrific team. They are my right hand - I don't know what I'd do without Jim!

       Last year, BJA worked with NCJA under the Recovery Act to provide training and technical assistance to the SAAs and State Analytical Centers on issues of strategic planning and implementation of evidence-based approaches. In addition to the focus group in December, NCJA and BJA hosted four regional meetings - and what they've learned is that there already are strong problem-solving collaborations using data and research to support program planning and implementation. I know you'll hear about some of those successes during this Forum.

       As I mentioned when I spoke at the NCJA meeting in December, promoting evidence-based practices has always been important to me, going back many years. And it's one of the major reasons - if not the major reason - I agreed to come back to the Department of Justice.

       So, what do I mean when I say that evidence-based approaches are a priority for me? What do I think constitutes an evidence-based approach?

       The term "evidence-based" has become almost a clich in the field. Do we know anyone, for example, who opposes evidence-based approaches? Anyone who wants to fund anecdotally-based policies? Well, probably no one goes around saying that overtly!

       Roger Przybylski - who's the former director of research for the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority and now heads a research institute in Colorado - gives, I think, a really good definition of "evidence-based." He says it's a way of describing practices that both rely on sound theory and have been found effective according to rigorous scientific evaluation.

       And I think that emphasis on sound theory is particularly critical, because it recognizes that evidence-based approaches aren't just a collection of programs that happen to work. There's a reason they work - there's logic behind their effectiveness.

       He also applies the term "evidence-based" to a broader decision-making approach. This is how he puts it: "Evidence-based decision-making is . . . the routine and systemic application of the best available knowledge in order to identify and choose the optimal approach in policy, management, and other applied settings."

       In other words, evidence-based programming is not just picking and choosing from a set of proven practices; it's a way of doing business that puts knowledge at the center.

       One of my goals has been to make data, research, and sound science integral to the way OJP does business. I've strived to have all of OJP, in effect, doing science - not just the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. We should - across the board - be putting knowledge at the center. This, really more than anything, is why I came back to OJP.

       But this isn't nearly as simple as it sounds - as I'm sure all of you know! Going back to what I said earlier, most people want their decisions to be based on the evidence. The key - for us at the federal level and for you on the state and local levels and in the research field - is to figure out what we mean by "evidence" and how we help stakeholders determine what approaches are right for them. That's what we're trying to do through the Evidence Integration Initiative that I launched at OJP last year.

       Some of you have heard about E2I, as we call it, but for those of you who haven't, it has three goals:

  • First, to improve the quantity and quality of evidence that we generate through our research, evaluation, and statistical functions.
  • Second, to better integrate evidence in program and policy decisions.
  • And third, to improve the translation of evidence into practice.

        This is an OJP-wide effort, and we're taking several steps:

  • First, we're working toward establishing common expectations and definitions for credible evidence across OJP programs. This means aiming for the gold standard of evidence - the randomized controlled trial - where appropriate, but also recognizing the much larger universe of findings from quasi-experiments and other research approaches.
  • Second, we've established Evidence Integration Teams within OJP to synthesize evidence on specific justice topics and develop principles for practice that can be communicated to the field.
  • Third, we're working toward developing an evidence-based Web site - a sort of "What Works and What's Promising" Clearinghouse - and we hope to create a diagnostic center that will provide direct support to jurisdictions as they apply evidence-based approaches. ?
  • Finally - and I'm very excited about this - we're establishing, for the first time ever, an OJP Science Advisory Board. Its members will be appointed by the Attorney General, and it'll be made up primarily of academics, but also of practitioners and other leaders outside of OJP. The board's purpose will be to help inform our program development activities and make sure we're staying true to the best scientific information available. We're working out details with the Department - but the Attorney General is fully supportive.

       We've also recently gained - as you probably know - two new leaders at OJP - a new director of NIJ, John Laub, and a new director of BJS, Jim Lynch, two well-respected scientists who are heading up our research and data functions.

       So, I think we can honestly say that, through E2I, the Science Advisory Board, and the appointment of these two leading researchers, we are, indeed, making knowledge development central to the way we do business at OJP.

       I'm also very pleased that the President's budget request for next year so strongly reflects this commitment to science. First of all - and this is unprecedented - it includes a three-percent set-aside of OJP's budget for research, evaluation, and statistics.

       The budget also includes $1 million for the "What Works" Clearinghouse that I mentioned earlier and $6 million for the diagnostic center. And there are a host of other budget line items dedicated to evidence-based programs: $10 million for a continuation of the Smart Policing Program administered by BJA; $10 million for a Smart Probation program; $37 million for a Children Exposed to Violence Initiative; and $25 million for a Community-Based Violence Prevention Program.

       I'm excited that the Senate Subcommittee 10 days ago gave us funding in each of these areas - a strong reflection of support!

       New programs like these will build on the strong base of research and experiential knowledge that we've accumulated over the years. And it's important that we keep in mind just how much more we do know now.

       For example, we've learned through research from David Weisburd and Larry Sherman and others that concentrating law enforcement resources on small geographic units, like blocks or specific addresses, can be extraordinarily effective in reducing crime. And it doesn't just push crime to a new location. In fact, just the opposite - it can actually bring similar benefits to surrounding areas.

       An NIJ-funded evaluation of a probation program in Hawaii, called HOPE, showed that "swift, certain, and proportionate" punishment of repeat violators - most drug offenders (and even hard-core meth users) - is promising. When these offenders violate the conditions of their probation, they're arrested immediately, appear in court within hours, and spend a short time in jail. In a one-year randomized controlled trial, the new arrest rate for HOPE probationers was only 21 percent - less than half the 47 percent rate of the control group. We hope to see these amazing results replicated.

       These are just a few of the things we know from research and experience that, I think, will help us make major breakthroughs in preventing and reducing crime. My friend Al Blumstein, whom you'll hear from tomorrow, is absolutely right that the "fundamental knowledge base in our field is much thinner than we would like," but what we do know has the capacity to transform the way we do business.

       Of course, developing and expanding our knowledge base is only one part of the equation. Making it useable is the other piece. This is where our state-level planners and our policymakers have such a critical responsibility. And make no mistake, there are numerous challenges associated with this.

       First and foremost are the fiscal hardships we're all facing. And I'm including us on the federal level because, frankly - looking ahead to the next few years - we're going to be tightening our belts right along with you. I think it's unrealistic to expect that the resources we've been able to make available through the Recovery Act - and even through our regular-year funding perhaps - will continue to flow at the same level. If we're serious about getting evidence-based approaches into the mainstream of criminal justice operations, we need to be planning now.

       And here, the SAAs have, in my opinion, a critical leadership role to play in spearheading comprehensive criminal justice planning in your state - with all the players at the table - if you're not already doing so. I can't think of a better vehicle to drive the movement of thoughtful evidence-based practice forward than comprehensive statewide planning, or a better driver to be behind the wheel than the state's SAA. Your leadership can be crucial here - and in the current fiscal crisis facing so many states, it has never been so needed.

       Second, we need to be figuring out, not only how we get these approaches adopted, but also how we sustain them in the current economic climate. We need to be looking at training for practitioners on implementation. We need to strategize on how to get local leaders and state lawmakers on board.

       Third, we need to be thoughtful about the boundaries for adapting evidence-based practices. What level of fidelity to evidence-based programs do we demand? And there's a serious scholarly debate about this - to what degree can we endorse deviation from a program's original design? We need to think about what core elements need to be adhered to, and we need to be prepared to offer guidance on where modifications can be made without compromising a program's effectiveness.

       And finally, we need to help facilitate partnerships between researchers and practitioners. This, I think, is key to advancing the evidence-based paradigm. Thankfully, we have researchers like Richard Janikowski and Anthony Braga and many others who are out there getting their hands dirty and engaging in real action research with law enforcement and other practitioners.

       Jim and BJA are helping us lead the way through their Smart Policing Program, which pairs researchers with justice system professionals to identify and address local problems. We need more of this; we need to keep working to break down traditional barriers between the research and practitioner communities.

       These are all challenges that are easy to name but hard to address. And I want to assure you that we will work with you to find solutions. This is a joint enterprise, and we all have much at stake.

       One of my goals in returning to OJP was to ensure an open dialogue with the field. I've used other venues to hear from our constituent groups, and I'd love to continue that process here and get your feedback, your thoughts, and your ideas. Roland and Cabell were gracious enough to give me some time to speak, but what I'm really looking forward to is hearing from you. So, thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts and your candid comments.

       Thanks so much!


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