The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the nation’s primary resource for advancing scientific research, development, and evaluation on crime and crime control and the administration of justice in the United States. Headed by a presidentially appointed director, it is one of the major units in the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Under its authorizing legislation, NIJ awards grants and contracts to a variety of public and private organizations and individuals.
At the request of NIJ, the National Research Council (NRC) appointed a committee to assess the operations and quality of the full range of its programs. These include social science research, science and technology research and development, capacity building, and technology assistance. The committee was requested to examine and make recommendations regarding NIJ’s role in supporting and sustaining the nation’s scientific infrastructure of crime and criminal justice research. We were asked to consider what kinds of research were reasonable and appropriate for NIJ to support and the appropriate structure and scope for its short- and long-term planning and budgeting processes. We were also asked to consider the adequacy of its budget, its current organizational structure, and its mechanisms for translating research into policy and practices and whether these are appropriate for fulfilling its science mission.
The committee concludes that a federal research institute such as NIJ is vital to the nation’s continuing efforts to control crime and administer justice. No other federal, state, local, or private organization can do what NIJ was created to do. Forty years ago, Congress envisioned a science agency dedicated to building knowledge to support crime prevention and
control by developing a wide range of techniques for dealing with individual offenders, identifying injustices and biases in the administration of justice, and supporting more basic and operational research on crime and the criminal justice system and the involvement of the community in crime control efforts. As the embodiment of that vision, NIJ has accomplished a great deal. It has succeeded in developing a body of knowledge on such important topics as hot spots policing, violence against women, the role of firearms and drugs in crime, drug courts, and forensic DNA analysis. It has helped build the crime and justice research infrastructure. It has also widely disseminated the results of its research programs to help guide practice and policy. But its efforts have been severely hampered by a lack of independence, authority, and discretionary resources to carry out its mission.
The committee considered two basic approaches for how best to achieve the appropriate level of independence for NIJ: (1) moving NIJ out of OJP and (2) retaining NIJ in OJP and giving it a level of independence similar to other federal research agencies. In considering these options, the committee reviewed other federal research agencies, consulted with former directors of NIJ and OJP, and raised the issue with many others who offered guidance to the committee.1 In its deliberations, the committee considered the recommendations of two other NRC committees that issued reports on related topics: the report on the needs of the forensic science community (National Research Council, 2009c) and the report on the Bureau of Justice Statistics (National Research Council, 2009a). After careful consideration of the evidence, the committee concludes that keeping NIJ in OJP but with substantially increased levels of independence secured by Congress and greater involvement of the research and practitioner communities has a better chance to result in an agency that can gain the trust and confidence of Congress, the administration, and the criminal justice community.
Increased independence is essential if NIJ is to function as a viable federal research agency with full responsibility for the quality of its research. Only Congress can provide the requisites of increased independence and the necessary oversight to ensure that specific authorities cannot be easily retracted or eroded. Without the independence, opportunities may arise for others to inappropriately influence NIJ’s programs. If the changes we recommend in this report to improve NIJ’s independence and authority are not implemented within 5 years, or if they are and the problems we have identified persist, then we recommend carefully revisiting the idea of moving this research function.2
Our report makes clear that fundamental reforms are necessary. In order to foster public safety, the nation needs research on the causes and correlates of crime and on what policies and practices work for whom, when, and under what circumstances. NIJ is uniquely placed to do this but currently lacks essential tools: a strong management structure, a scientific staff, a budget to support long- and short-term goals, and protections from political shifts.
To address these problems, the committee makes five recommendations that call for ensured independence and improved governance, a strong science mission, a bolstered research infrastructure, scientific integrity and transparency of its operations, and a culture of self-assessment.
INDEPENDENCE AND GOVERNANCE
Recommendation 1: The committee recommends that Congress provide for the requisite independence and authority of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) while retaining its organizational placement within the Office of Justice Programs and the U.S. Department of Justice. Among the key issues to be considered in pursuit of this goal are a statutory advisory board, a set term of office and minimum qualifications for the NIJ director, and clear authority for NIJ to make awards and control its budget and resources.
An effective research organization needs to have the independence to conduct its work. The key components of independence include control of the grant-making processes at all steps, from solicitation through grant approval; ultimate authority to establish research and evaluation priorities; authority to make budgetary recommendations at the highest level of the department’s budget process; authority for staffing decisions; and authority over its reports and other dissemination products. The history of NIJ reflects diminishing authority and resources, not only as a result of congressional action, but also from actions taken by its oversight agency, OJP.
Also contributing to a weakened NIJ has been its unstable governance. For most of its existence, it has experienced frequent turnovers in leadership, directors whose backgrounds and experience did not reflect its science mission, and advisory boards that have never functioned as a scientific advisory board should—setting agendas, reviewing the integrity of the research operations, and assessing accomplishments of the agency.
In the committee’s view, significant improvements will not occur without clear and specific changes in NIJ’s independence and authority. We call for the NIJ director to have had experience in directing crime and justice research, be recognized as a highly qualified authority in the fields of crime and justice research (including evaluation research), and have demonstrated
success in managing substantial crime and justice research efforts. The NIJ director should be appointed for a fixed renewable 6-year term. We call for an advisory board that reports directly to the NIJ director, whose members are composed predominantly of experienced researchers and whose powers and responsibilities support the research mission. NIJ should be given sign-off authority for its grants. In the past, this authority has not always been recognized by the OJP leadership. The committee also stresses the importance of giving NIJ the authority to present its budget to DOJ and for NIJ to have its own budget line item in the departmental budget that is considered by the Office of Management and Budget and Congress. Unlike other science agencies, NIJ does not have its budget separately reviewed or discussed by congressional appropriators.
NIJ should also have authority to recruit and hire staff. One way to exert political interference is to control the numbers of authorized staff, grade levels, and the ability to fill vacancies. NIJ needs to strengthen the scientific and technical qualifications of its staff. By having greater authority for its staffing, including recruitment, it will be able to determine its needs and attract and hire and retain talented and scientifically trained people.
A STRONG SCIENCE MISSION
Recommendation 2: To strengthen its science mission, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) should direct its efforts toward building a body of cumulative knowledge that will assist the criminal justice field in its effort to prevent and control crime and improve the criminal justice system; sponsoring research that will improve and upgrade current scientific methods used to study crime; and supporting new areas that have heretofore been neglected due to NIJ’s incapacity to commit resources required to support projects of long duration, great complexity, and substantial expense. To improve NIJ’s ability to support research, the committee recommends that Congress remove responsibility for forensic capacity-building programs and reinstate them in other U.S. Department of Justice and Office of Justice Program agencies, such as the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Community Oriented Policing Services office, that have a clearly defined technical assistance mission, are closely linked to state and local criminal justice agencies, and have larger financial reserves to draw on.
NIJ has succeeded in developing a body of knowledge in important areas that are critical to preventing and controlling crime and improving the administration of justice.
For the most part, however, these efforts have been heavily dependent
on congressionally mandated programs or the transfer of funds from other OJP or DOJ offices to support their specific programs. These requirements have often been made without a strong science foundation. This situation has particularly impacted NIJ’s evaluation research portfolio. Its outcome evaluations are extremely diverse in terms of topic, theory, focus, and method and reflect a lack of programmatic focus on systematic knowledge building or problem solving. One reason for this is that NIJ frequently has limited control over decisions of what programs to evaluate. A second and related reason has been NIJ’s failure to engage in long-term strategic planning.
Congressional earmarks and mandates require NIJ to fund programs that are at best minimally related to research. Funds for forensic laboratory capacity-building and forensic training activities, such as the Paul Coverdell, DNA Backlog Reduction, Solving Cold Cases, and Forensic DNA Unit Efficiency Improvement programs, swamp the NIJ research program. Management of these programs diverts a considerable fraction of NIJ’s time and resources away from its research mission. More importantly, they diminish its stature as a research agency by not allowing it to set its own priorities and requiring it to undertake activities or to fund organizations that are not appropriate for a research agency.
As a science agency, NIJ should play a central role in defining the type of research and evaluations that make sense. Its primary mission is not to evaluate OJP programs, to be a policy-serving arm of OJP and DOJ, to build the capacity of line agencies, or to disseminate information that is not science based. While research focused on improving the status quo of the criminal justice system is important, it will not point the way to new directions or approaches—it will only suggest what we can do more or less of. Building knowledge for the future will require the agency to make longer term commitments of funds and staff to solving problems in specific areas of criminal justice practice, to engage more actively with the research community in selecting priority areas and testing the feasibility of ideas as they develop, and to make multiyear commitments to researchers to work through the development process.
The committee was charged with recommending a research agenda for NIJ. We have not specified a specific research agenda but instead have described a science-based process that we think should be followed to do this. In large part, this is because we became convinced that proper governance and transparent processes need to be established first within the agency in order to set the agenda and to resolve such issues as the proper balance between basic and applied research. An NIJ with the autonomy and type of leadership we propose will use a strong advisory board and the many research recommendations it has already received (see for example
NIJ should be provided with the authority and resources necessary to devote sustained attention to more long-term research activities appropriate for a research institute. It needs to structure a research agenda that will advance theory, research methods, science, and practices for the purpose of improving the nation’s capacity to prevent and control crime and fairly administer justice. Such an agenda should address such topics as crime control theory with a specific emphasis on the role of police, courts, and corrections in preventing and controlling crime, the fair administration of justice, the etiology of criminal behavior, factors that influence desistance from criminal behavior and the emergence of new opportunities for crime, as well as crime prevention. With more resources and a structured research agenda, NIJ will also be in a better position to justify and support research to improve scientific methods and other kinds of studies, such as surveys and longitudinal studies that have been neglected because of their duration, complexity, and expense.
BOLSTERED RESEARCH INFRASTRUCTURE
Recommendation 3: The National Institute of Justice should undertake efforts to nurture and grow the pool of researchers involved in criminal justice research as well as activities that support the research endeavor itself. These efforts should include increasing the resources devoted to supporting graduate education for persons pursuing a career in criminology and criminal justice studies and other disciplines engaged in research and teaching on criminal justice topics, such as the Graduate Research Fellowship Program and the W.E.B. Du Bois Program, and enhancing the Data Archive Program.
NIJ’s efforts to build the research field and support the research endeavor include support of fellowship programs and the criminal justice data archive. In the past three decades, NIJ has developed and sustained a number of fellowship programs. The recipients of NIJ doctoral and young faculty fellowships have made scholarly contributions to the criminal justice literature or to NIJ’s research programs and many have remained in the criminal justice field. NIJ’s support for graduate students and rising
academics has been effective but modest. The need for new and diverse researchers studying crime and justice issues is as critical today as it was when NIJ was founded. Expanded fellowship programs and the consideration of a robust postdoctoral program in crime and justice are needed.
Currently, NIJ lacks the resources or administrative oversight to effectively expand these programs. The committee observes that, over the years, there has been inaccurate documentation of basic and relevant information regarding the fellowship recipients. In addition, no external formal assessments of NIJ’s fellowship programs have been conducted to date.
Similarly, there has been no formal assessment of its program to archive and disseminate crime and justice research data. Nonetheless, we recognize that the Data Resources Program and the resulting data archive at the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data are unparalleled and have provided the community with valuable research and information resources. However, too many grantees continue to ignore requirements for submitting data generated by NIJ grants to the data archive. Contributing to the problem, NIJ has failed to monitor compliance with its requirements that research grantees submit their data sets or risk nonpayment of funds or to develop a strategy that would provide the necessary support to produce quality data sets for the archive.
Although the committee recognizes NIJ’s achievements in developing and sustaining these programs and the resource limitations under which it has labored, we recommend that NIJ provide better oversight and management of these programs and conduct formal assessments of them.
SCIENTIFIC INTEGRITY AND TRANSPARENCY
Recommendation 4: The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) should revise its research operations to allow for greater transparency, consistency, timeliness, and appropriate involvement of the research and practitioner communities. In particular, NIJ should make information about its research operations and activities publicly available, easily understood, and consistent with the highest standards found in other high-quality federal research agencies.
Improvement is needed in NIJ’s internal operations for selecting and managing its programs to bring them in line with the practices of other federal research agencies. An overriding theme is the need for greater transparency in processes and decisions. Planning activities are not well documented, the signaling of research priorities is haphazard, peer-review feedback to applicants is limited, grant award decisions are not in line with announced intentions, and report review is handled inconsistently by different units. Insufficient transparency contributes to the opinions expressed by
practitioners and researchers that NIJ decisions are not made on the basis of scientific criteria. From early announcement of award cycles, to greater information on proposal reviews and decisions, to increased availability of data on awards and award completion, NIJ needs to be better understood by the research and practitioner communities.
Improving NIJ’s internal processes can be achieved through good leadership. However, one process that is not under its authority is peer review. Currently, the peer-review process is centralized and administered through OJP. Peer review is fundamental to the scientific process, and NIJ should have complete authority to manage and assess all aspects of it.
Transparency of information cannot be achieved without good record-keeping, and in some instances NIJ is dependent on the centralized grant management information system of OJP. NIJ should take responsibility for documenting its decision-making processes, and in instances in which essential information is not being generated by OJP, it should develop its own documentation and records.
Another theme throughout the committee’s deliberations on operations is the need to clarify the important but separate roles that the research and practitioner communities should play in the research program. These roles are reflected in the proposed composition of the NIJ advisory board, in the qualifications of the NIJ director, and in the improvements that the committee is recommending regarding NIJ’s research and development management processes. NIJ should increase its efforts to involve researchers and to seek their advice in the development, implementation, and assessment of its research activities. Their advice is critical to identifying and shaping the kind of science needed to accumulate enough knowledge to answer critical policy questions. Practitioners also have an important role to play and, through their training and expertise, can provide broad policy direction to address research concerns. As consumers of research, practitioners can also advise as to its need and relevance.
CULTURE OF SELF-ASSESSMENT
Recommendation 5: NIJ should measure the influence of its programs on research and practice and assess the quality of operations and program-level technical and managerial matters.
NIJ’s efforts to assess the quality of its research as well as the many processes that support the research enterprise have been extremely limited. With the exception of the 1977 NRC study and this current one, there has been no other independent review of its entire program. NIJ does not have an advisory board infrastructure to provide oversight to the agency as a whole, to the individual offices, or to large multiyear research projects.
To our knowledge, NIJ does not conduct formal, periodic assessments of planning, peer review, or report review processes—activities that involve substantive judgments regarding the quality of proposed or completed research. These kinds of assessments are urgently needed.
NIJ will not be able to conduct these assessments without better records and procedures that provide access to information. NIJ should take responsibility for creating record systems that will allow for detailed analyses of program funding, administrative and personnel matters, and improved information on programmatic activities. More critically, NIJ needs to track the usage and influence of its funded research in scholarship and practice. Like other well-managed federal research agencies, NIJ should establish self-assessment as an ongoing activity and use it to constantly improve the quality of its research and operations. Furthermore, to ensure transparency, it should make results of such assessments publicly available.
Many advances in the understanding of crime and the criminal justice system during the modern era have been influenced in part by the work of NIJ. It has also promoted the use of scientific methods in evaluations of criminal justice programs to produce evidence-based practices. However, the potential of NIJ has been undermined by the lack of a robust scientific culture. Our analysis strongly suggests that if the improvements we recommend are implemented, NIJ can be the great leader that Congress originally intended.